The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore’s plan to pay sex abuse victims through bankruptcy became more clear Tuesday, with lawyers for the church saying parishes and schools would have to contribute funds to a larger settlement for survivors.
Those payments, along with money from the archdiocese itself and from insurance carriers, will go into what’s known as a compensation trust that will ultimately manage the payouts for survivors. The size of the trust will have to be agreed upon by both the church and creditors, which in this case means abuse victims who bring claims.
However, those same parishes and schools will largely be protected from lawsuits in state court, with a federal judge blocking those cases at the archdiocese’s request. Lawyers for the church said the archdiocese’s insurance policies extend to parishes and schools, and if someone were to sue a parish and deplete those insurance funds, it would diminish what money is left for the victims who bring claims through the bankruptcy process.
“The intention of this motion is to preserve resources [for victims],” attorney Blake Roth, who represents the diocese, said in court.
Federal bankruptcy Judge Michelle Harner determined those insurance policies are considered assets of the corporation that makes up the archdiocese, which gave her reason to ban would-be lawsuits against entities that would have to draw down on those assets to pay legal feels or settlements.
The archdiocese has its own self-insured policy for sexual misconduct, according to bankruptcy filings.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first in what figures to be at least a two-year process, if not longer, for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Leaders of the diocese, America’s oldest, made the move to declare bankruptcy Friday, two days before a new Maryland law went into effect making it easier for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits. Known as the Child Victims Act, the law removed the statute of limitations for those complaints; a person had until their 38th birthday to make a claim under the old law.
Anticipating a wave of lawsuits, the bankruptcy filing protects the church’s assets, for now, while also heading off future liability by putting a time limit on how long people have to bring claims against it. Diocesan lawyers suggested one possible timeline where all would-be claimants, meaning survivors, would have to submit their paperwork over the next nine months. For comparison, the Child Victims Act, which passed the legislature almost unanimously, has no such time window and allows abuse victims to bring claims in perpetuity.
Hundreds of victims are expected to bring claims, Roth said.
David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a group of about 20 survivors and advocates expressed anger over the archdiocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy in part because of the newly imposed deadlines on survivors to bring claims.
“We worked for decades to get our act through, and basically the church filing for bankruptcy ripped the rug out from under us and has crushed many survivors,” said Teresa Lancaster, a survivor of child sexual abuse in the Baltimore archdiocese who is now an attorney and advocate. “It puts limits back on just like the statute of limitations did.”
The claim filing process in bankruptcy court is different from filing a lawsuit in a few key ways. Instead of drafting a complaint, victims will fill out a form, either with the help of an attorney or on their own through a web portal that is still being set up. The archdiocese plans to contract with Epiq, a technology company that facilitates claims, but will need Harner’s approval to do so. In bankruptcy proceedings, the judge will have to approve all purchases or plans to spend money.
Unlike filing a lawsuit, the claim process is not inherently public facing. All forms submitted will be considered confidential by the court unless the victim checks a box on the form stating they want to make their claim public. The secrecy of the claim process is meant to protect survivors and encourage people to come forward who would not otherwise file a lawsuit, Harner said.
Lorenz, Lancaster and others also excoriated church lawyers who said in the hearing that the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy strictly because of the Child Victims Act.
“Nothing could be further from the truth than that,” Lorenz said. “The Child Victims Act righted a wrong in the system. The reason they’re filing for bankruptcy is that they abused children. And then covered it up. And then enabled it. They’re in bankruptcy because of what they did, not because of the CVA, and that has to be made crystal, crystal clear.”
While the vast majority of lawsuits against the church are now blocked, some are not. If a person was abused at a parish in a year where the insurance may have lapsed, or at a Catholic facility that isn’t covered by the larger diocesan policy, those lawsuits can proceed because they won’t impact the asset pool that will ultimately be used to settle the bankruptcy claims, Roth said in court.
That includes the high-profile Gallagher lawsuit, brought by one of Baltimore’s oldest Catholic families against St. Mary’s Seminary and the Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice. That suit, filed in July, alleges negligence from the archdiocese, the seminary and the order led to the abuse of Frank Gallagher Jr., which later drove him to drug and sex addiction before he overdosed and died in 2022. Gallagher’s father founded the firm Gallagher, Evelius and Jones, the de facto in-house counsel for the archdiocese where the church’s main attorney has traditionally been one of the archbishop’s close advisors.
Gallagher’s adult children brought the lawsuit, and one of their attorneys, Steven Kelly, told The Baltimore Sun that the diocese’s bankruptcy attorneys told him the church’s insurance wouldn’t apply to the seminary and the Sulpician order.
Reporter Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.