Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
As the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s bankruptcy reorganization enters its fourth year without resolution, pressure mounts for church insurance companies to pay a larger share of the payout to nearly 400 survivors of child sexual abuse.
The archdiocese and plaintiffs alleging abuse by priests and other clergy reached a tentative agreement last year on what the archdiocese would pay, but contributions from insurance companies remain an issue.
Now, plaintiffs’ attorneys are preparing to ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Thuma to allow the state’s lawsuits or claims to be stayed by filing for bankruptcy – a move that could eventually allow juries to assess damages to individual survivors after public trials and proving much more costly for insurance companies.
The archdiocese itself plans to file a lawsuit as early as Monday asking a judge to settle undisclosed issues regarding the relationship “between the archdiocese and its insurers,” an archdiocese lawyer said Friday during of a hearing in Albuquerque.
A recent three-day mediation involving the insurance companies, the archdiocese and the claimants, led by a nationally recognized mediator, was positive and is expected to continue, said archdiocese attorney Thomas Walker, making reference to mediator Paul Van Osselaer from Texas.
“I’m hopeful and I know everyone is sick of hearing that word as time goes by,” Walker said. “But I’m encouraged.”
Jim Stang, a California attorney who represents survivors, countered at Friday’s hearing that while progress has been made, “we are a long way from resolving this case in terms of the dollars involved.”
He noted that in the recent USA Gymnastics bankruptcy settlement involving sexual abuse claims against a former team doctor, survivors will receive an average of $800,000 each. In recent days, the University of Michigan announced a $490 million settlement of sexual abuse claims involving a former school doctor in which survivors will receive an average of more than $400,000 each, Stang added.
“We look to settlements across the country to find out what would be the fair value of what these (archdiocesan) abuse claims would total,” Stang said. “If they don’t pay attention to the current trends in the country, they are making a big mistake.”
There has been no disclosure of what the archdiocese is willing to contribute or what insurance companies are offering.
And Rob Charles, a Tucson lawyer representing parishes in the archdiocese, said quoting such multimillion-dollar payments might not be appropriate for parishes in New Mexico that have committed “probably more than they can handle.” for the Archdiocese’s financial settlement.
The archdiocese has had numerous insurance companies since claims of sexual abuse by priests and other clergy surfaced decades ago and so far it has paid $52 million , including insurance proceeds and his own money, to settle about 300 cases out of court, according to The Associated Press. . This would average about $175,000 per victim.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2018 in part to avoid having to face individual lawsuits alleging clergy sex abuse.
A question on Friday was whether the archdiocese’s next legal action over the insurance issues would be sealed.
Previous court documents, orders and hearings were sealed at the request of the archdiocese to ensure that its contracts with insurance companies, which included confidentiality clauses, were not breached.
Thuma, without immediately commenting on the matter, said on Friday: “My bias is not to seal things off, especially in a case like this where there is a public interest and the public has a right to know. ..”
Merit Bennett, a Santa Fe attorney, told the judge: ‘The words ‘under seal’ in this type of case concern me because I filed my first lawsuit (for child sexual abuse) against the archdiocese. in 1994 and since then the words ‘under seal’ seem to perpetuate the fact that all abuse was under seal for many, many generations.
If the insurance record is sealed, Bennett said, “The public is basically going to say, ‘Well, it’s more or less the same thing.
Stang added, “These insurance policies, one might say, are the most important assets in this area (of the Archdiocese) and doing it behind closed doors is not appropriate.”