A financial flood from child abuse claims is coming, says a leading priest of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and a settlement is the dam to prevent “devastation to parishes.”
The Rev. Glennon Jones, vicar-general, wrote in a letter this month that progress is being made in collecting donations for a bankruptcy settlement involving hundreds of allegations of abuse perpetrated by priests and other clergy in the territory overseen by the archdiocese.
Jones’ letter, posted on the archdiocese’s website, gives insight into the severity of the situation and into the strategy to get out from under the dilemma.
Meanwhile, a mediator continues to work to bring the matter to a resolution.
If the bankruptcy doesn’t go through, Jones wrote, “nothing is safe from liquidations for legal costs and lawsuit settlements — churches, halls, schools. Nothing.”
James Stang, a Los Angeles attorney who represents a committee of abuse survivors in the case, said there is a “conditional settlement agreement” that would require certain actions by the archdiocese. Other parties such as insurers and parishes would need to be brought in and a plan of reorganization written.
The bankruptcy court also would have to approve the agreement. Stang said litigation has been threatened, but it’s “on pause at the moment.”
Stang said mediation continues this month, but he didn’t say an agreement was imminent. He declined to say how much money could be at stake.
A federal bankruptcy judge wrote in a February ruling that more than $150 million could be involved, and that was only for a portion of the assets victims potentially could receive.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma also wrote in the order victims could continue with their legal claim that the archdiocese had transferred property and cash to its 93 parishes in the last decade to hinder victims’ access to those assets.
The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy three years ago. The archdiocese generally contended the reorganization was necessary because of financial losses from past sexual abuse cases and from those to come.
Levi Monagle, an Albuquerque-based attorney who represents dozens of the victims, said he couldn’t comment on the total value of the archdiocese’s assets.
A settlement will be complicated, he said, “but I have every belief that we are in a position to achieve one if all the parties continue to put in the necessary blood, sweat, and tears.”
“The survivors in this bankruptcy have been tremendously patient thus far — they are warriors in every sense. If they can hold out a little longer, keep fighting a little longer, then we can get this settlement done — and on very good terms,” Monagle wrote in an email.
Jones wrote that the archdiocese is “making pretty fair progress in raising the funds needed for our bankruptcy settlement” and called this important for the archdiocese to “move forward and out” of the situation.
He said it also would “give victims some healing for sexual abuses they suffered as children.” He cited close to 400 claims against the archdiocese.
The executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Thursday he was glad the archdiocese admitted there are close to 400 abuse claims. But Zach Hiner said by email he “cannot help but feel that this is but a small picture of the true scope of sexual abuse and cover-up within New Mexico.”
In his letter, Jones wrote: “If we don’t meet certain goals soon, we risk losing the proposed settlement.” It isn’t clear what goals he was referring to. But he said failing to reach a settlement could lead to the “lawsuits against individual parishes we’ve been worried about.”
Jones and the archdiocese did not respond Thursday to a request for additional comments. Jones said through a spokeswoman that further details are covered by confidentiality restrictions imposed by the court.
In his letter, he wrote that legal fees alone will be huge. He described the archdiocese facing payouts for “hundreds of hours on both sides, at several hundred dollars per hour for each attorney,” and “that goes through $$$ really fast.”
He also said some pastors fear parishioners will react negatively to “giving such a huge chunk of parish savings” away and putting property up for sale and that it would be tragic to lose churches that are hundreds of years old to legal fees and lawsuits.
Worse, he wrote, would be “the loss of access in providing sacramental, spiritual and material nourishment to those in need, as well as teaching our young ones love of God, love of neighbor.”
While the archdiocese used to “provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity … those funds have recently had go to lawyer and legal fees. The same may happen to individual parishes, which have already been contributing to their own defensive legal fees in this whole process.”
To the notion that the archdiocese has plenty of money, Jones wrote that the archdiocese is “anything BUT rich, especially after paying lawsuit settlements for the last 20 years, and bankruptcy legal fees for the last two.”
The archdiocese “declared bankruptcy because of dwindling resources, not because it’s ‘rich.’ Also, we wouldn’t have laid off 20% of our employees in December, sold the Archbishop’s much larger former house and have almost all ASF [Archdiocese of Santa Fe] properties on the sale block if we were flush with cash.”
Jones said church leaders “lament so very much those who have failed you so grievously in the past. Yet, all we can now do is move forward and look to a new day.”
He said he hoped the new day would include healing for the victims and for the people of the Church in Northern New Mexico.