Soon, a federal judge will make one of the first key decisions in the Archdiocese of Baltimore bankruptcy. How much time should survivors have to file a claim of clergy sex abuse?
An earlier deadline would hasten payments to all survivors, but shorten their window to join in the case. A later deadline would delay their payments, but give them more time to reckon with their trauma and make up their minds.
It’s a balancing act for the court, and the archdiocese attorneys have staked out their starting place for negotiations. They propose a claims deadline of Feb. 26.
That’s 150 days after the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for bankruptcy. And that’s one of the shortest windows ever for claims in a U.S. Catholic Church bankruptcy, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Banner.
The Banner reviewed the 35 other archdiocese and diocese bankruptcies in the U.S. and found 150 days to be about three months shorter than the average time per case. It would be the shortest period for survivors to file claims for an archdiocese by more than a month. Only five diocese cases had a shorter window.
Bankruptcy courts weigh many factors when setting a deadline for claims: the various state laws, the population within an archdiocese, and the anticipated number of survivors. Research shows many survivors take years to acknowledge abuse from their childhood. On average, they’re 50 or older when they come forward.
A committee represents survivors in the Archdiocese of Baltimore bankruptcy. And this committee has not yet responded to the church’s proposal of Feb. 26 — or offered a counter date.
Committee attorneys and church lawyers are expected the negotiate the matter privately. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle Harner must approve the deadline.
Members of the committee met in Baltimore earlier this month to discuss matters in the case, including the claims deadline.
“We all feel that their proposed date of February 26th is not enough time to properly and thoroughly get the word out to survivors given the holidays,” committee chairman Paul Jan Zdunek wrote in an email to The Banner. “There is enough stress that survivors endure during the holidays, and we don’t want to add the heavy burden of having to discuss and work through their trauma to meet a deadline.
“We will be suggesting a timeline we believe allows for both time and space for survivors as well as moves the process along in an expeditious manner,” he wrote.
Similarly, the director of an advocacy group for Maryland survivors said the church’s proposal of 150 days should be doubled, at least.
“It doesn’t give survivors enough time to respond, and to work up to deciding to file a suit,” said David Lorenz, the Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Lorenz also wants the bankruptcy court to set aside a portion of the money for those survivors who do not make the deadline.
“The average 35-year-old hasn’t come to grips that a crime was committed against him,” Lorenz said.
The shortest-ever claims window was in the 2017 bankruptcy of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings in Montana. There, survivors had 122 days to file a claim.
Four additional bankruptcies — one in California, three in Minnesota — had windows shorter than 150 days for claims. Those are dioceses of Oakland, California, and St. Cloud, New Ulm, and Winona-Rochester in California.
Maryland’s neighbors generally have set longer deadlines to file. Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, cumulatively, allowed an average of 240 days to file claims.
Even more time was provided in New York. The seven cases there allowed survivors an average of 337 days to file.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 29 — two days before Maryland’s Child Victims Act took effect. The new law was expected to bring a flood of lawsuits against the church over old instances of clergy sexual abuse.
By filing for bankruptcy, however, church lawyers stopped the litigation in state court and forced survivors to bring their claims to the bankruptcy judge. A hearing in the bankruptcy case is scheduled for Nov. 27.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore was widely expected to file for bankruptcy after the new law passed and the attorney general’s office issued a report on the history of sex abuse within the church. Investigators identified 158 priests accused of the sexual abuse and physical torture of more than 600 victims over the past 80 years.