As I Recall: Why I Wrote About The 8.5 Million Dollar Settlement

It's official: ebooks are shaping up as the next form of serious scholarship (joining vampire chronicles and celebrity cookbooks). I know this because of my other life as paperhanger/scholar. This has encouraged some thoughts about this blog. Would it not be timely and smart to repackage this study as an ebook? Why not? Conversion software is out there, it works, and some of it is free. A simple text document, like the 8.5 study,  is an ideal candidate. So, look for that down the road. In the meantime, I take this opportunity to reflect on how this "book-length study" came about.

Blogging, for the most part, is driven by passion. It has to be. The pay is lousy, the hours long. But, the sight of your own name in print is only slightly less intoxicating than the sound of your own name. Many bloggers start with a conviction that "Soon, all the people of the earth will thank me."

Actually, they won't, by and large. Polishing a piece of prose to a shine is no mean accomplishment. Sending it forth is a kick. But, these pleasures soon fade. Eventually, perhaps around Post 79 or so, the Robinson Crusoe syndrome sets in: "Why is there no feedback? Where are the comments? Am I here all alone?"

For these reasons, it seems to me, most of the longtime bloggers who have not landed a paying gig are the ones that accept working in solitude. This disposition dovetails with Catholicism for a couple of reasons. First, the interior life of the Catholic tends to be rich and personal, though based on universal truths. Certainly for some the ceremonies are of the utmost importance; the social aspect can be important too, especially for younger Catholics. But, more often, I find that committed Catholics are those who have followed their own spiritual path for many years.

That is the case with me. Our Irish-American family consisted of ten children, anchored by the Mom and Dad. Only seven of the kids appear in this early photo (I am second from the right). When you belong to a family larger than a softball team, especially one that is captained by a meat cutter, certain priorities emerge. I recall that the big three ideals, after the church, were education, imagination, and self-reliance. These kicked into high gear as we left high school and the nest of home.

In a single year (was it 1972?), I was at the State College at Lowell (now the University of Lowell), Martha was at Salem, and Kathy was at Bridgeport. All were state schools, all was done through student loans, and all the loans were paid back, dollar by miserable dollar, over many years. The smartest of all the children, Linna, went directly to marriage after high school, but she, too, returned to school after dozens of years and earned a degree. My mother, for that matter, got several advanced degrees in psychiatric nursing, long after raising the ten of us. I guess she was at loose ends.

But, back to the church. I was in a religious order for four years, and while it's been somewhat of a mixed blessing, no pun intended, those years were valuable. Despite showing me some flaws in church culture, those years also showed me that many if not most Catholics were genuinely nice people. It was a missionary order. While I didn't travel back to the origins in Germany, nor to the many third-world countries where the order had set up shop, there was plenty of contact with Catholic seminarians from around the globe. I always liked the Australians. Somehow their sense of humor stood out.

ANYWAY, enough about my early life.  I think the best way for a solitary blogger to get into the topic of Why Write? is to interview myself:

Q: What is Western Mass Catholics (WMC)?
A: This is the first web site I did. It's a static one, and is where all the court papers are parked, along with editorials, letters to the editor, articles and so on, usually relating to the Diocese of Springfield. From there I created, which is where the 8.5 study first appeared. That was written between 2008 and 2010. When the 8.5 material got too large for the blog, I created a new blog ( and parked the study there, along with a list of accused clergy.

Q: Why did you begin writing about the 8.5 Million Dollar Settlement?
A: The impetus was a letter that Catholic historian David O'Brien of Holy Cross wrote to the editor of the Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA) in July of 2008. The three-year insurance trial, in which 8.5 million dollars was awarded to the church in order to compensate victims of clergy abuse, had just concluded. O'Brien wrote that now that the deal was made, it was the duty of local Catholics to make sure that the victims had, in addition to the money, any other help that they needed. This sounded like the right thing to do. 

Q: Did you know any of the victims?
A: Not a one. But still, I felt like I owed them.

Q: So, this writing is sort of like social work?
A: Not exactly, although it ended up being "citizen journalism" or something like that. All during the trial (from May of 2005 to July of 2008) I could not really make head nor tail of it. At the parish level, we only heard about it through a short news story every 8 months or so from the Eagle or Springfield Republican, and none of it hung together.
Was this a class-action suit? Who was suing who? Why was there no trial or testimony? What was at stake? How much money was involved, and who was paying it? Where was the money coming from?  How do you buy insurance for child abuse, anyway? Is that even possible? All these things were mysteries.
On top of that, we heard zero from church officials. Nothing was said at Mass, nothing in parish bulletins, and nothing much in the Catholic Observer, the diocesan newspaper. What was going on? Even the newspaper reporting sounded wrong, because the two sides rarely agreed on anything. They sounded like they were on different planets. 

Q: Why does it matter?
A: It matters because the church is an organization made up of human beings. In this case, human beings who had screwed up big time. As a contributor to the church, I wanted to know how they were spending my money.  I also wanted to know more about how the abuse had happened; what the causes were; and what the resolution would be. I also suspected that other Catholics were no better informed than I was. It seemed like a good idea to get the original documents (court papers), study them, and learn more.

Q: Why?
A: In my professional life I am a paperhanger/scholar. For a long while I have worked in historic homes. I also work in residential and commercial spaces, but the historic homes have become a speciality, and led me into research and writing. For more about this you can go to or my profile on LinkedIn.
It's through the study of original documents such as bills, correspondence, trade and government statistics, advertising and the like that we make sense out of historic wallpaper use. It's no different for other decorative arts, and for the trade history of painting, upholstering and paperhanging. I thought that my skills as a researcher and writer could be used to analyze the arguments of the opponents in the insurance trial. I also assumed that the material could be made into a narrative.

Q: How did you start?
A: To be honest I can't remember which court paper was the first. Maybe it was the judge's decision on the "protective order". I think I called Stephanie Barry at the Republican, or maybe Ellen Lahr at the Eagle. Anyway, one of the reporters said that if I went to Hampden County Superior Court a few days after any hearing,  I could get copies of the arguments. I was a little reluctant to follow through, but once I began reading I was hooked.
Here, in black and white, was the story. There was no ambiguity. On the contrary, each side was desperate to paint a compelling portrait for the judge, in order to win the case. Almost immediately I felt that publishing the papers was the logical thing to do.

Q: So, you copied and scanned.
A: Exactly. The cost was less than 200 dollars for hundreds of pages, and you just placed an order. The scanning took a little time. Later cases were easier: Federal cases are already online through PACER, so those could be downloaded easily, and cost less. And, the Republican began putting court papers on Scribd.

Q: Are there any models for this type of work?
A: The template was laid down long ago by I don't know when or if lay Catholics will qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the originators of that web site are worthy candidates. It is a marvelous piece of creative journalism. The difference is, I wanted to apply the method to the Springfield Diocese: to create an online database of permanent literature so that others could study it, too. I had local Catholics in mind, but also journalists and any local citizen, plus of course people in the many other dioceses who were going through similar ordeals.

Q: What happened after you got all the important papers online?
A: I wrote a narrative about the progress of the suit. But, I soon realized that the story was  incomplete. I couldn't draw any conclusions about the trial because so much of it hinged on what led to the victim's claims, and that history was strongly contested. As the judge put it: "What did the officials of the Diocese know, and when did they know it?"
The only way to get the back story was from online nonprofit databases and the pay archives of the Springfield Republican, Boston Globe and  Berkshire Eagle. I got dozens of articles about the Lavigne trial, the Misconduct Commission, the claims and lawsuits that began to surface around 2000 or so, and local reactions to all these things. These articles are really the backbone of the study, because they provide many of the facts that both the 8.5 trial and the 8.5 study are based on.

Q: Why have you not uploaded many other court papers, like those of the Danny Croteau investigation?
A: While I have the utmost respect for SNAP and those who work on the bishop-accountability web site, I do not think that abuse per se is the biggest problem in the Catholic church. I think that the real problem is governance, of which the abuse crisis is a symptom. Also, for sheer volume, the abuse crisis is overwhelming. In the Springfield Diocese alone, it's more than I could do well. Most of all, the BA web site is already doing it well, so why bother? On the other hand, I see little on other web sites about governance. The outstanding exception is the Voice of the Faithful group in Fairfield County, Diocese of Bridgeport, who have done so much to bring attention to governance. An excellent book about the topic is "Common Calling: Laity and Governance in the Catholic Church."

Q: Why is governance so important?
A: The Catholic church (People of God), by doctrine, cultural and spiritual tradition, are both the laity and the clergy. They are equal, and share governance. That's the spiritual reality, even if it's not always manifest. It's important to know the history, and there have been fantastic strides in understanding the historical Jesus and the early church, including the important role of women.
When Christ was alive, he moved and worked among ordinary people.  The apostles were all laymen.
He had few nice things to say about the clergy of his day, that's pretty well know. But something that is not well known is the origin of the sacraments. They arose from day-to-day events. A child was born, so they felt a need to bless the baby. Someone got very sick, or died, so the family wanted to have a special prayer service. And so on.
These homemade family traditions, over many years, became repetitious. A set way of doing the prayer emerged, not unlike how the psalms developed in the temple. Finally, there were formal ceremonies. And that's what baptism and extreme unction and marriage are today. But, they came from everyday life. And, from this, you can see that the Catholic church changes. It always has. And, it is changing now, except that it's harder to see.

Q: What's the most important level of the church and why?
A: The local parish is always the most important unit. I disagree with those who pick up stakes to follow a particular priest simply because he has a winning personality. This neglects the universal nature of the church. It also raises questions: I understand that someone in a well-off suburb can jump into an SUV and drive 20 miles to a favored worship site, but what about people who need to walk to church? Or, who are isolated in a small town? Are we to assume that their church experience is less valid because they have fewer options? If so, how can these different tiers be squared with the universal Catholic message? Another intriguing question is whether their church experiences might even be richer than those who have more discretionary income and therefore more options.
I often hear that the Vatican should sell all their art on Ebay and give the parishes the money. In the real world, I think that dioceses and parishes and Rome and religious orders and universities fight about money all the time, except, in the Catholic tradition, behind closed doors, with slogans, and in mainly polite language.
The structure of the church is poorly understood. It is not a pyramid, with the Pope at the pointy end. That image would be more accurate if it were turned upside down. But, even that image fails, because the church is really a bewildering variety of overlapping canonical units. This entire structure depends on the generosity of lay Catholics at the parish level. But, because of the canonical structure, all of the money is in one pot. This is why the 8.5 million settlement affects parishes. Not because it is a direct cost, but because everything that affects the diocese affects the parishes, and vice versa. See bankruptcy proceedings, especially in Spokane, WA.

Q: Doesn't the Bishop own the property of the diocese?
A: No. Trustee is a better word than owner. The bishop is the administrator of the diocese, but, in church law, "administer" has nothing to do with ownership. For more, see "New Commentary on The Code of Canon Law" (2000) by John Beal and others.
It's confusing, but the Springfield Diocese has a joint identity. The Springfield Diocese (canonical division) was formed in 1870. The Springfield Diocese (civil division) was formed in 1898. It takes nothing away from the canonical unit to acknowledge that it is also a civil corporation. In fact, I would argue that if the state of Massachusetts published an annual report on the financial health of the Springfield Diocese (as they have the right to, since it is a civil corporation), it would make the canonical unit stronger, because more financial disclosure would encourage more trust. This would serve the self-interest of the bishop, because no one wants to be captain of a sinking ship. That much is clear.

Q: What is the single most important thing about Catholicism that most people should know?
A: Most people don't realize how hopeful it is, and how important prophecy is, and how faithfulness to a covenant makes sense and is rewarded, over the long haul, no matter how bad the situation. And some situations can be very bad indeed. If you read the daily Mass readings, and see how often prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Moses are quoted, and if you pray the Psalms, you get a sense of how the New Testament connects to the Old. Then, the words of the gospel are greatly enhanced.  But somehow that hopeful message has a hard time being heard.

Q: Is your blogging a success?
A: I enjoy it. I'm happy with my statistics, which consists of page views, returning visitors, length of visit, and so on. I am proud that about 15% of the visitors spend more than an hour. It shows that they are actually reading a lot of stuff.

Q: Who is your number one fan?
A: My most frequent visitor is the law firm of Egan, Flanagan and Cohen. Last time I checked, they had visited the main blog over 250 times.