Dissecting the Irish Christian Brothers Bankruptcy

Last year, the Irish Christian Brothers (ICB) became the 10th US Catholic diocese or religious order to declare bankruptcy to avoid public child sex abuse trials or depositions. In the case of the ICB, the order was faced with more than 50 lawsuits at one of its Seattle schools and had to act quickly before any of the cases went to trial.

Our offices have handled hundreds of cases in these bankruptcies across the country, but there are some unique attributes of the Irish Christian Brothers bankruptcy that victims and the public need to know.

1) It’s very hard to track the brothers. And the brothers like it that way.

Although both priests and brothers wear the ubiquitous Roman collar, the two are very different. Priests are ordained, can say mass, and perform the sacraments. Brothers are considered “lay” religious. Although they take vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, they are not ordained and are unable to do many of the things that priests do. For comparison sake, their roles are closer to those of nuns.

Because of that, the brothers “slip through the cracks”: they don’t show up in the Official Catholic Directory, they don’t appear in diocese directories, and can be easily moved from place to place without the official paper trail. In the case of Br. Thomas Ford, this was the reason that he was able to evade Canadian authorities for almost three decades.

Since they are members of a religious community, the brothers are usually not fingerprinted when they work in Catholic schools. That’s how Br. John Walderman was able to escape the publicity of his arrest for soliciting a young male prostitute and continue working in schools in New York. He was only “outed” when a whistleblower read a positive article about Walderman in the newspaper.

2) The ICB hid perpetrators from other dioceses and orders.

The ICB schools were great “hideouts” for non-ICB perpetrators who got into trouble in other dioceses. A perfect example is Fr. Gerald Funcheon, a Crosier priest from the midwest. My office has represented many of Funcheon’s victims from his time in Minnesota and Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s. According to church records, Funcheon was banished from the Indianapolis Diocese and then disappeared from the Official Catholic Directory in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he was not missing—he was working as the chaplain at two Irish Christian Brothers high schools, Damien Memorial High School in Honolulu and Palma School in Salinas, CA.

When parents came forward to complain that Funcheon may have abused boys at Damien, the Irish Christian Brothers had no problem immediately moving the priest to another ICB school where no one would know about his past.

3) ICB Schools are hiding under unique names and mistaken identities.

When victims’ advocate Patrick Wall went to Damien High School to alert the public about the bankruptcy, he learned something interesting. A representative from the school attempted to tell the media that Damien was owned and operated by a “different” Christian Brothers. While there is another group of Christian Brothers (who own the winery), the order leadership tried to capitalize on the confusion in the hopes that victims would not come forward. Palma High School in Salinas and Bergen Catholic in New Jersey went a step further sent out confusing letters to alumni.

Our advice: if you were abused by a Christian Brother or at a Christian Brothers-run school—but think it may be a different Christian Brothers—get legal advice. Don’t rely on the school or church officials to tell you whether or not you have rights.

4) The Brothers didn’t think that people would find out.

ICB schools are spread out over 14 states from Florida to Hawaii. They don’t have a dynamic leader or any “celebrity” members. They have had to withdraw from many of the schools because of a lack of brothers, and were removed from at least one school in California. In other words, the ICB thought that this bankruptcy would sail under the radar. I believe that they hoped that the Seattle media would forget about the cases there and that victims in other states would have little or no information when they received their bankruptcy notice in the mail informing them of their rights.