A lawsuit over Catholic church property in Guam opened on Saturday, touching on Chamoru culture, the Catholic faith and families’ desires to donate their land to build parishes or schools.
The lawsuit seeks to determine whether parish and Catholic school assets — including those donated by families decades ago — could be used to pay survivors of clergy sex abuse.
Attorneys for the Archdiocese of Agana and its creditors, mostly survivors of abuse, made their case in person before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood.
Church lawyers said the archbishop only holds parish and school property in trust.
The Archdiocese has protected school and parish assets, saying these assets are for the benefit of individual schools and parishes.
Barrister Edwin Caldie, representing the Official Unsecured Creditors Committee, said the archdiocese – or the debtor in the bankruptcy case – will not be able to present clear and convincing evidence that parishes and schools had the intention to create a “resulting trust” upon transfers. of property.
Evidence will also show that donations of property were made directly to the archdiocese and not to parishes and the school despite “conclusive” testimony from parishioners, he said.
The testimonies of parishioners are understandable as they fear losing their parish property, said Caldie, of Minneapolis-based Stinson LLP.
“Evidence will show,” he said, “clergy sexual assault survivors and their families are equal members of the church community who have contributed to the church.”
Caldie pointed out that there is “one trustee, one body, one beneficiary, one Roman Catholic church in Guam.”
Archdiocesan attorney Vince Camacho, in his opening statement, said they would present evidence of the transfers of ownership, although donor intent was not included in some of these documents.
At the time of donations, Camacho said, donors didn’t think specific intent was necessary, among other things.
But he said CHmorus passed down oral histories to their descendants about the land they had donated for the benefit of a church or school, and that the donor’s “intent” was not necessarily in the transfer. of deeds or similar documents.
This type of testimony from the descendants of the original landowners and parishioners is nonetheless “meaningful,” Camacho said.
This is because oral tradition, he said, is a feature of Chamoru culture.
He said that even if the original donors were alive today, they would be reluctant to testify because they would be embarrassed to brag about their gifts to the church.
Camacho said that over the days the archdiocese will present evidence that will help the court infer the intent of the donors.
He spoke of the case and the evidence as “rooted in the Catholic faith and culture of the Chamoru people”.
Parishioners take the floor
Witnesses from Chalan Pago and Asan parishes were among those called on the first day of the two-week trial.
Joaquin Santos Jr., 86, a member of the Asan Parish Finance Council, testified to the Juan A. Limtiaco family’s donation of the property on which the current Nino Perdido y Sagrada Familia Catholic Church stands. It was after the war, he says.
Other parishioners, including Teresita Perez and Benjamin Diaz of Chalan Pago Parish, testified that the real estate property where their parish is located is held in trust by the Archdiocese after being surrendered by the family of Ignacio Cruz and Antonio Cruz in the 1950s.
After being questioned by counsel for the creditors’ committee, Diaz and Perez said Our Lady of Peace and Safe Journey parish maintains a separate existence from the archdiocese “as a public juridical person” under canon law or from the church.
They also said the parish controls its own assets and funds its own activities.
Caldie said that’s not always the case, pointing out that archdiocesan, school and parish funds are frequently mixed and that the archdiocese has taken over some parish and school financial administrations.
For example, he said, the archbishop closed St. Thomas Aquinas High School for the benefit of the entire archdiocese.
Father Paul Gofigan, interviewed by Caldie on Saturday, said the Cathedral-Basilica Dulce Nombre de Maria in Hagåtña, which he called “the mother church”, had more than $1 million in debt it owed hard to repay.
Gofigan said the archdiocese should take over the finances of the cathedral and place it in receivership.
This was also part of the testimony of Chris Felix, a member of the Archdiocese’s Finance Council and longtime realtor. Felix was the first witness called to the stand.
He testified about how he helped the council identify and value the assets of the archdiocese, including real estate, cash and debts. During this review, they encountered serious financial problems faced by parishes and schools.
Camacho, meanwhile, said it was never intended to take anything away from the survivors of the “horrific abuse” suffered by “more than 290 victims”.
But he said the court will see there is a “resulting trust” to benefit parishes, schools and the whole community that has been “deeply fractured”.
The trial, which resumes Monday morning, is being held in person and via Zoom.