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Lawyer: Victims seek to eliminate archdiocese

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

An attorney for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said Monday that his clients are dedicated to a “compassionate and generous” settlement for victims of clergy sexual abuse, but he accused victims’ attorneys of seeking to eliminate the “physical presence” of the archdiocese in New Mexico by inquiring into church holdings.

The assertion by Albuquerque lawyer Tom Walker was disputed by victims’ attorney James Stang during a hearing Monday in the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

“The suggestion that we are the enemies of this archdiocese is not constructive,” Stang responded. “But more importantly, it’s not true.”

The hearing ended without an immediate ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge David Thuma of Albuquerque on whether to temporarily halt three lawsuits alleging the fraudulent transfer of about $245 million of archdiocese property to parishes and their trusts before the bankruptcy filing.

The archdiocese and parishes want the lawsuits, filed by victims’ attorneys, put on hold while they appeal Thuma’s Oct. 9 ruling that granted victims the authority to pursue the cases. Attorneys for victims said it isn’t clear that the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would even permit an appeal at this point.

During the hearing, Walker told the judge the archdiocese has sold some “significant” real estate parcels and hopes to liquidate more assets that aren’t “mission-critical.” Property considered mission-critical include churches, cemeteries and schools, he said.

“We are trying to get the funds available for the settlement that we very, very much want,” said Walker, who added that the archdiocese recently made an “offer” to the committee, which represents more than 370 victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Walker noted there are 300,000 Catholics in the archdiocese, which covers central and northern New Mexico, adding, “The church will not go away.”

“The litigants seek to eliminate the physical presence of the church by selling all of its property, so there’s resistance to that,” Walker told the judge. “We want a compassionate and generous settlement with abuse victims.”

Stang told the judge that his clients are seeking a determination about what real estate should be considered part of the archdiocese bankruptcy assets that could be available to help pay victims.

“Determining what is the property of the estate does not mean properties will be sold,” Stang said.

There may be disagreement with the archdiocese over what property is mission-critical and what real estate should be the subject of negotiations and mediation, Stang said. But he disputed the notion that his clients want to eliminate the “physical presence” of the archdiocese, New Mexico’s largest.

The archdiocese is among 29 Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. that have filed for bankruptcy protection to deal with mounting sexual abuse claims. The archdiocese website lists 79 priests and other Catholic clergy members, many now dead, who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of children in the archdiocese.

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