Baltimore archbishop, chair of abuse survivors committee strike unified tone on bankruptcy case

Alex Mann, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Religious News

BALTIMORE — Baltimore Archbishop William Lori struck a unified tone with the chair of the committee representing sex abuse victims in the Catholic Church’s bankruptcy case at a news conference Monday, as both men acknowledged the number of survivors who filed claims is not yet known.

Lori and Paul Jan Zdunek, chair of the creditor’s committee of survivors, told reporters that they shared the goal of promoting an efficient bankruptcy process that ends with fair compensation for survivors, a detailed set of protocols to prevent future child abuse and an ability for the church to continue its mission.

“It is shared the goal of creating an environment rooted in mutual trust that permits us to work together constructively, and hopefully quickly, toward an agreed-upon plan,” Lori said. “Today’s news conference is also about a public declaration of our intention to work together on behalf of victim-survivors.”

The public show of unity comes more than a month after the deadline for survivors to submit sex abuse claims passed with hundreds filing in the case, and with the archdiocese and survivors’ committee having jointly asked a judge to begin a lengthy mediation process that they hope will end in a settlement.

The archdiocese declared bankruptcy Sept. 29, two days before a new Maryland law eliminating time limits for child sex abuse lawsuits took effect. The church anticipated hundreds of lawsuits to be brought, following the release of a state attorney general’s report finding that 156 clergy and other church employees tormented more than 600 children and young adults, dating to the 1940s.

After the May 31 deadline for survivors to file in the bankruptcy case passed, Zdunek said there were at least 700 claims filed, but it would take time to identify the final number. He said Monday that the overall number of survivor claims won’t be known until mediation begins and the sides agree on a figure.

“We don’t want to release the number of actual survivors claims until we all feel we have accurately identified the correct number,” Zdunek said. “This is more complicated than it may seem because some duplicate and vague claims were filed.”

Lori emphasized the people behind the claims.

“Whatever the number that is finally agreed upon, I think one of the things to keep in mind is it’s not just a number,” Lori said. “It represents so many people who have been harmed. It represents so many people that have experienced really terrible things in their lives. Stories of abuse and misuse of power. Stories of how the most innocent have been harmed.”

The news conference also comes amid continued tension between the archdiocese’s insurers and the church and survivors committee. The archdiocese’s lawsuit against its insurers for alleged breach of contract is pending, with several insurance companies asking for that complaint to be handled in the U.S. District Court rather than the federal bankruptcy court.

Insurance companies also objected to the joint request by the archdiocese and the committee for mediation. Philip D. Anker, an insurance company attorney, said during a status conference in the case on July 1 that some insurers had “shared a framework for a mediation listing seven or eight points.”


U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner postponed a hearing scheduled for Monday to allow the sides more time to reach an agreement on the scope of mediation. If that isn’t resolved by July 22, disagreement over mediation will be addressed at a hearing that morning in front of Harner.

With their joint appearance Monday, Zdunek and Lori reaffirmed their commitment to work together, despite other survivor advocates having disparaged the archdiocese.

“While there are others — who we are both thankful for and indebted to — who have helped shape the child protection laws and pushed for the creation and release of the Attorney General’s report last year, the Archbishop and the Creditors Committee — and our representative counsel — are the only engaged and informed parties who are discussing all of the claims in an official capacity sanctioned by the court,” Zdunek said.

David Lorenz, Maryland director of Survivors of those Abuse by Priests, or SNAP, said in a statement that Monday’s news conference “came as a surprise to many survivors and the survivor organization.”

He pointed out the Catholic Church’s role in lobbying against the creation of the Child Victims Act, which lifted time limits for sex abuse lawsuits, and fighting it in court once it took effect.

“Working closely with the survivor community and having to routinely deal with the inaccuracies, the stonewalling, and the misleading statements coming from the diocese has given us a unique perspective on the workings of the diocese,” Lorenz said. “With no disrespect to Paul or the Creditor’s Committee, we believe that the diocese is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Edwin Caldie, an attorney for the survivors committee, said in a statement that “to strengthen anything requires tension.”

“In this case, the committee is the tension because our role is to push for more and we are going to do that, and our goal is to ensure that every survivor is heard and acknowledged as fully and completely as humanly possible,” Caldie said. “We’re happy that the archbishop appears to be welcoming this tension. We’re hopeful that as we enter mediation, his actions will match his words.”


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