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Victim deadline approaches in archdiocese bankruptcy case

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

More than 265 people have come forward since March to file confidential claims seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse by priests and other Catholic clergy members as part of the ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy case filed by the archdiocese of Santa Fe.

The number could easily top 300 by Monday’s deadline for filing claims in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New Mexico.

To stem the financial drain from clergy child sex abuse lawsuits, the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in December and disclosed on its website that nearly 300 claims from survivors had already been settled through mediation over the past 25 years.

The ongoing bankruptcy case offers some indication – though not definitive – of the extent of damage inflicted by predator priests and other clergy members in the archdiocese, New Mexico’s largest.

“There has been this ongoing and pervasive history of abuse that was covered up for quite literally decades in the state,” Albuquerque attorney Cammie Nichols said. “So I’m sure the actual number of people who were victimized and sexually abused is probably quite a bit larger than the number of people who actually file claims. So to me, this number is not really surprising. But I think it’s really just sort of the tip of the iceberg.”

Nichols said her firm will be filing 30 to 40 claims before the 5 p.m. deadline on Monday.

Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall, who has settled more than 100 priest sexual abuse cases since 2011, said his law firm has submitted about 115 claims on behalf of newly disclosed victims.

At the time of the bankruptcy filing, the archdiocese was facing about three dozen lawsuits or claims from survivors.

Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester said that insurance has paid a substantial portion of settlements in the past but that the bankruptcy filing would help ensure a “global resolution” so all claims of child abuse survivors can be settled “fairly and equitably.”

An attorney representing the archdiocese in the bankruptcy action didn’t return a Journal phone call this week.

After Monday, the claims will subject to a mediation process that is likely to include the formation of a separate trust for unknown or future claims.

“Once there is a number on June 18, everybody will know how many claimants there are going to be, then the case will turn toward figuring out how much money goes in the pot and where it comes from,” attorney Hall told the Journal.

“Setting aside the issue of schools and hospitals and churches, everything else should be available and, given the rhetoric of the archbishop and the pope, I’m assuming they want to make as complete reparations as they can to communities that have been destroyed for 50 years,” Hall said. Claims filed by survivors are sealed.

But Bankruptcy Court records show a claim was filed this week by the Servants of the Paraclete, which ran a treatment center for priests around the country who had various afflictions, including compulsive sexual abuse of children. The center closed in 1995.

Hall said nearly 30 percent of his priest sexual abuse cases have involved clergy who abused children in parishes and schools in New Mexico after being treated at the Jemez Springs center.

In May, Hall’s firm filed four lawsuits against the Servants of the Paraclete alleging “outrageous conduct” in failing to prevent three priests from out-of-state parishes from continuing to molest children in New Mexico.

An Albuquerque attorney who filed the claim for the Servants of the Paraclete didn’t return a Journal phone call Thursday. According to the claim addendum, the Servants of the Paraclete wanted to “preserve its rights” in the bankruptcy action.

For many priest abuse victims, the deadline imposed in the bankruptcy case “is completely arbitrary,” Hall said.

Some who were abused as children have been urged by family members to file claims, Hall said. But other survivors who have kept their abuse secret for decades may need some other trigger to come forward.

Hall said some who have approached his office in recent months didn’t even realize there was a bankruptcy case, despite notices published by the archdiocese and in-state and out-of-state lawyer media advertising.

One advertisement in the Journal features photos of four former New Mexico priests who are among the 78 clergymen identified by the archdiocese has having been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children.

The ad says in part, “New Mexico Children were sexually abused by Catholic priests over many decades. It is time to hold the church responsible and compensate the victims.”

Typically, victims turn to attorneys to file their claims for them, because “it’s not an easy process to fill one (a claim form) out with accurate and well-thought out information,” Hall said. His firm has spent four to five hours researching each claim, he added.

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