Baltimore Archdiocese says it will file for bankruptcy before new law on abuse lawsuits takes effect

Archbishop William Lori, Catholic  Archdiocese of Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced Friday it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization days before a new state law goes into effect removing the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims and allowing victims to sue their abusers decades after the fact.

The step will “allow the archdiocese to equitably compensate victim-survivors of child sexual abuse” while the local Catholic church continues its mission and ministries, Archbishop William E. Lori said in a statement posted on the archdiocese website.

But attorneys and advocates said the church is simply trying to protect its assets and silence abuse victims by shifting the legal proceedings to bankruptcy court.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney specializing in child sex abuse cases whose firm has offices across the country, said the bankruptcy filing is “a calculated decision in hopes to silence and suppress survivors of abuse.”

“Little does the Archdiocese of Baltimore know the strength and resilience of the survivors who have come forward — we will continue to stand by them and vigorously advocate for them in the bankruptcy process,” Anderson said in a statement Friday afternoon.

Michael McDonnell, interim executive director of the national group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Baltimore archdiocese is following in the footsteps of other jurisdictions across the country that have similarly sought bankruptcy protection to offset settlement costs.

“Catholic bishops are employing the same deception from coast to coast,” he said. “Cover up child sex offenses while maintaining the ministry of the abusers. Next, oppose any modifications to the statute of limitations that might make those offenses more visible. Finally, go to federal bankruptcy courts and act as though you have run out of money when secular laws offer a window to justice. When will church officials make true amends?”

But Lori argued the move is the best way to compensate survivors since the archdiocese’s resources would have otherwise been exhausted on litigation, perhaps after only a small number of cases had been decided.

“Staggering legal fees and large settlements or jury awards for a few victim-survivors would have depleted our financial resources, leaving the vast majority of victim-survivors without compensation, while ending ministries that families across Maryland rely on for material and spiritual support,” he said.

On Sunday, Maryland will end the state’s statute of limitations for when civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse can be filed against institutions. Victims are already poised to file lawsuits when the law takes effect. Lawmakers included a provision in the law that would put lawsuits on hold until the Supreme Court of Maryland can decide on the law’s constitutionality, if it’s challenged on legal grounds.

Earlier in the week, Maryland’s attorney general released some previously redacted names in its staggering report on child sex abuse in the Baltimore archdiocese, but the names of five Catholic Church leaders remained redacted amid ongoing appeals, prompting criticism of the church by victims’ advocates.

Lori said the financial reorganization is expected to take two to three years and involve several steps. He said the bankruptcy court will begin accepting claims from victims who wish to enter into negotiations with the church.

“The Archdiocese and victim-survivors will then enter negotiations with the hope of agreeing to a plan that includes a trust fund to provide compensation. If a plan is approved by the bankruptcy court, no future claims for past cases of abuse can be brought against the Church,” he said.

By The Associated Press