Worth $49M, archdiocese files for bankruptcy

Abuse survivors will have limited time to file new claims

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 12/6/18

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has filed for bankruptcy in the face of decades of sexual abuse lawsuits and millions of dollars in payouts to survivors.Archbishop of …

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Worth $49M, archdiocese files for bankruptcy

Abuse survivors will have limited time to file new claims

Posted

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has filed for bankruptcy in the face of decades of sexual abuse lawsuits and millions of dollars in payouts to survivors.

Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester said during a Thursday (Nov. 29) press conference that bankruptcy is the most "equitable" way to continue serving the survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the archdiocese's priests and religious leaders.

The actual paperwork was filed Monday (Dec. 3) in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for New Mexico.

The Archdiocese has about $49 million in assets, including about $31.6 million in property, according to the court documents.

Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a debtor, such as a business or other entity, comes up with a plan to pay its debts while also continuing to operate. Wester said schools and parishes, which are separate legal entities, would "go forward" as usual.

More than 350 abuse survivors have been documented in the archdiocese over the last 25 years. Lawsuits related to sexual abuse have been a constant reality for the church in New Mexico since the first instances of abuse were brought to light in the early 1990s.

Now that the archdiocese petitioned for bankruptcy, all current lawsuits against the church, an estimated 35, are on hold. Furthermore, no new individual claims can be brought forward during the bankruptcy proceedings, according to Brad Hall, whose law firm has represented over 100 survivors of sexual abuse by clergymen.

In the next few months, abuse survivors who have not previously sued the archdiocese have a window to file their claims, which will be dealt with collectively as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

"New claimants can and should file their claims in the bankruptcy system as soon as possible," Hall said.

"There will be extensive notice in all media that is intended to reach anyone who believes they may have such a claim," according to the archdiocese website.

Hall welcomed the bankruptcy petition as another step toward justice for victims.

"We believe that all survivors of clergy sexual abuse in New Mexico will be helped in the bankruptcy system to obtain closure and transparency," read a statement from Hall. "With the filing…the archdiocese can fully address the scope of the priest abuse crisis in a meaningful way."

"This is not just about money, and they have plenty of land and money, but is also and mostly about transparency and healing," Hall added in an email to The Taos News.

Wester said the archdiocese didn't pursue bankruptcy to avoid responsibility.

"On the contrary, we believe that Chapter 11 is the most equitable way for the archdiocese to address its responsibility to the victim-survivors…Chapter 11 reorganization will also provide full financial transparency with regard to the operations and properties of the archdiocese," the statement read.

According to the filings, the archdiocese has about $3.8 million in operational funds and about $6.2 million in investments. The archdiocese has 84 full- and part-time employees (not including parish priests), with a monthly payroll of roughly $311,000.

In the last month, at least two other dioceses have announced plans to file for bankruptcy, including the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, announced Nov. 20, and the Archdiocese of Agaña in Guam, announced Nov. 7.

Catholic leaders in each jurisdiction used similar language in their announcements, saying it was the best move to bring justice to victims.

But some survivor advocates don't agree.

"What it does is it delays the process of settling the claims with the victims," said Judy Jones, the Midwest regional leader of SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"It seems to be an old trick that the church officials do. But eventually, they have to be held accountable. We hope that victims will continue to come forward and speak their truth," Jones said.

The diocese of Gallup filed for bankruptcy in 2013. It took until Nov. 2016 for the court to finalize the bankruptcy plan. All told, about 57 victims were party to the bankruptcy reorganization and the diocese paid out more than $17 million to claimants. According to the diocese's website, about $3 million came from the diocese as a whole while $500,000 was paid by diocese's parishes.

In May, the National Catholic Reporter reported that 19 dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. had declared bankruptcy due to sexual abuse claims, citing the watchdog group bishopsaccountability.org.

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