Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe and representatives for church clergy sex abuse survivors announced agreement Tuesday on a $121.5 million fund to compensate hundreds of adults who contend they were subjected to childhood sexual abuse by priests and other clergy dating back decades.
The announcement in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Albuquerque kicked off a new phase of the 41-month-old Chapter 11 reorganization sought by the archdiocese to stem financial losses from continuing legal claims that it failed to protect children from pedophile priests and other clergy assigned to schools and parishes.
Still to come is the allocation process of deciding how much to pay each of the 394 or so claimants. The next step would be for the claimants to vote on the reorganization plan.
“This settlement ‘turns the corner’ and now the Chapter 11 process can focus on plan confirmation and allocations to survivors, and perhaps healing and closure in many of the cases can accelerate,” said Albuquerque attorney Brad Hall, who represents more than 100 people who have filed claims in the bankruptcy proceedings.
“Our hearts go out to all childhood victims of Catholic clergy abuse,” said Hall, whose legal team has filed claims for more than 200 victims of Catholic clergy abuse in New Mexico.
The archdiocese was facing about 36 lawsuits alleging clergy abuse when Archbishop John C. Wester announced the bankruptcy filing in 2018, saying he hoped it would help provide a fair and equitable settlement with survivors. The bankruptcy put the pending civil cases on hold.
In a statement released Tuesday, Wester said, “The Church takes very seriously its responsibility to see the survivors of sexual abuse are justly compensated for the suffering they have endured. It is our hope that this settlement is the next step in the healing process of those who have been harmed.”
Of the 29 Catholic dioceses or religious orders to file for bankruptcy protection in the past 20 years, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s proposed settlement would be among the largest monetary payouts to survivors, with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the San Diego Diocese, and a Jesuit religious order in Portland, Oregon, paying higher amounts.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe case also has one of the largest number of claimants alleging sexual abuse.
Money for the settlement comes from the proceeds of archdiocese sales of property and other assets, contributions from parishes in the archdiocese, and insurance proceeds. A breakdown of contributions to the fund wasn’t available on Tuesday.
Ford Elsaesser, a Sandpoint, Idaho, attorney who represents the archdiocese, told the Journal on Tuesday that the parish contributions were “very substantial and meaningful and shouldn’t impact the mission of the archdiocese.”
Also on Tuesday, Wester informed priests in the archdiocese of the settlement in what was titled an “urgent letter.”
“While this is good news for the victims and the archdiocese, it nonetheless calls to mind once again the terrible scourge of sexual abuse and the urgent need for all of us to pray for the healing of those victimized by it,” Wester wrote. “It is also a moment that calls us to remain ever vigilant as we provide a safe environment for children and young people and as we maintain a zero-tolerance policy.”
James Stang, a Los Angeles attorney who helped to represent the claimants, said the nine-person claimants committee has stood for “fair compensation and transparency” devoting “thousands of hours over three years to getting the right result for survivors.”
Stang told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma at a hearing on Tuesday that the goal is to have “the money out to survivors” beginning in October.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for years,” one claimant told the Journal after the announcement. “I finally found possible closure and relief for what happened to me.”
The settlement for months hinged on the participation of a half dozen insurance companies that had provided the archdiocese with liability insurance at some point over the years. Over the last three years, three mediators have been appointed to get the parties to reach consensus, with the last mediator who specializes in insurance matters helping in the final settlement negotiations.
Included in the settlement is an agreement by the archdiocese to fund a public archive at the University of New Mexico’s Southwest Special Collections of documents related to the empowerment and protection of pedophiles at the expense of children, which may be the first of its kind, Hall said.
“Today’s settlement amount does not include any contribution by various religious orders who have liability of their own, which is yet to come,” Hall added.
For instance, claims are still pending against the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that once ran a so-called treatment center in Jemez Springs for priests from around the country who were accused of molesting children. Once deemed to be rehabilitated, priests were then assigned to work in schools and parishes in the archdiocese.
The center closed in the 1990s but has been blamed for helping New Mexico become what Hall has described as the “epicenter” for clergy sex abuse in the U.S.