It’s time for something to give on the legal logjam holding up payouts from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to nearly 400 sexual abuse survivors.
The Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018 in part so it didn’t have to face exposure from individual state lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse.
The claimants are already being denied what many of them seek — publicly exposing the church for its misdeeds. To keep the victims in financial limbo adds insult to injury.
When a diocese files for bankruptcy, lawsuits by alleged abuse survivors are suspended while a bankruptcy judge oversees the process as to how creditors will be paid so as to leave enough for the diocese to operate. These bankruptcy proceedings remain hung up on a question of who will pay the sexual abuse claims and how much. The Archdiocese indicated it would file legal action this week to get a judge to settle undisclosed questions about its relationship with its insurance carriers. The Archdiocese and claimants came to a tentative agreement last year on what the Archdiocese would pay, but insurance companies’ contributions remain an issue. As reported in the Journal last week, there has been no disclosure of what the Archdiocese is willing to contribute or what insurance companies are offering. According to The Associated Press, the Archdiocese and its various insurers have so far paid out $52 million to settle about 300 cases out of court, which averages about $175,000 per victim.
Four years into the bankruptcy filing, attorneys for the claimants are preparing to ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Thuma to let state lawsuits/claims that had been put on hold to go forward. The move should prompt the Archdiocese and its insurance carriers to reach an agreement — they’ll likely face greater liability if Thuma lifts the suspension. Lawsuits would also air Archdiocese dirty laundry, detailing how it’s dealt with sexual abuse claims.
On top of everything else, Thuma will decide whether to keep the Archdiocese’s negotiations with the insurance companies under seal. Prior court filings, orders and hearings have been sealed at the Archdiocese’s request. It is heartening Thuma said last week that, “My prejudice is to not seal things, especially in a case like this where there’s public interest and the public has a right to know.”
The church has a history of private settlements and confidentiality agreements to conceal abuse by priests. If lawsuits aren’t permitted to proceed through public channels, then the public’s right to know the details of how these payouts are structured is only amplified.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.