An almost 3-year-old bankruptcy case filed amid hundreds of allegations of child sexual abuse has cost the Archdiocese of Santa Fe more than $ 2.3 million in legal fees alone.
Federal Court records show that the Roman Catholic institution used the services of at least four law firms specializing in clergy sexual abuse and bankruptcy cases. The Archdiocese is seeking a settlement with 385 claimants in its December 2018 Chapter 11 filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Albuquerque.
This archdiocese and many dioceses across the country, including that of Gallup, declared bankruptcy in the Catholic Church scandal that began to gain attention in the early 1990s.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court records show that the Albuquerque Walker & Associates firm this week billed the Archdiocese of Santa Fe $ 374,999 for 13-month work ending in July. Including invoices from the previous two periods, Walker’s invoices totaled approximately $ 907,200.
Representatives for the company did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Walker & Associates meticulously detailed their phone calls, meetings, plans, time spent and amount charged in a 165-page court document. Depending on the lawyer or staff member working on a case, the firm’s fees ranged from $ 75 to $ 295 per hour.
The court reviews the charges and has the final say on their reasonableness.
Lead attorney for the archdiocese, Idaho-based Ford Elsaesser, argued that the fees are appropriate and necessary for long and complex cases like these.
“And we wish it wasn’t that long, but there are a lot of complaints,” Elsaesser said.
“I have been involved in cases like this since the Diocese of Spokane in 2004,” he added. “I suggest to you that the fees in this case are much lower than those of a number of them. “
Lawyers have not disclosed the amount of money needed to settle sexual abuse complaints, some of which date back decades. A federal judge wrote in a February ruling that more than $ 150 million could be involved, and that was only a portion of the assets that victims could receive.
The archdiocese hopes to raise enough money for a settlement through insurance, donations, property sales and an auction of small vacant plots. He aims to avoid the sale of churches, schools, meeting rooms and other properties he deems essential.
Elsaesser’s company has yet to submit its invoice for 2020-2021, but its total for the previous two periods was approximately $ 737,425.
Two other companies also failed to submit their invoices this year. The firm Blank Rome, with offices across the country, submitted one in 2020, for a total amount of $ 442,830. Albuquerque’s Stelzner firm has submitted invoices over the previous two years totaling approximately $ 258,875.
The other professional fees that the institution incurred in the bankruptcy case relate to real estate, surveying, accounting and valuation. She hired an auctioneer this year to run two online auctions of hundreds of small packages from September 21 to 28 and in November.
“The bankruptcy process is expensive and this case has taken a long time,” said James Stang, a California lawyer who represents some of the plaintiffs who have alleged abuse by priests and other clergymen. “The trade-off on time is hopefully a better outcome for the survivors. … Our goal is to get as much money as possible for the survivors.
The case is at its second mediator. The first was rejected for not having made sufficient progress.
Insurance companies are expected to cover a large chunk of the payments, and Stang said lawyers are struggling with them.
But the archdiocese “is working to sell some assets, which is good and we are happy that this is finally happening,” he said.
Merit Bennett, a Santa Fe lawyer who represents four victims, said all efforts should now be aimed at compensating those who made the claims.
“This is not a quick fix, unfortunately. It never has been, ”Bennett said. “And money will never totally solve it.”
Elsaesser said there is less conflict and litigation between the two parties at this point and the property sales are evidence of progress. The goal, he said, is to reach a resolution with the victims while the Archdiocese, its schools and parishes can move forward.
“I have a good degree of optimism that we get there,” he said.