The rush for clergy abuse victims to file claims against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has kicked into high gear, following a bankruptcy judge’s decision Thursday to keep a Monday filing deadline.
With nearly $2 million already spent on attorney fees, the archdiocese had argued that the early August deadline would allow it to move forward more quickly with financial reorganization and with lower professional costs.
Victims’ attorneys, however, argued that people who suffered abuse at the hands of archdiocese clergy should have the same deadline as other abuse survivors in the state, namely May 25, 2016, the cutoff established by the Minnesota Child Victim’s Act that opened the doors to the older sex abuse lawsuits.
They argued that the archdiocese didn’t provide adequate public notice to survivors, that parishes didn’t fully cooperate, and that a tighter deadline would not speed up the financial reorganization because parishes can still be sued until May of next year.
But U.S. bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel reaffirmed his April decision to move up the deadline to Aug. 3. He said that abuse victims had received extensive notice about the early filing date in the media and through their parishes.
In recent months, the archdiocese has placed deadline notices in more than 20 publications; victims’ attorney Jeff Anderson also advertised heavily.
Kressel said the core deadline issue was “about giving people actual notice.”
“I just don’t see that more time will change that dynamic,” he said.
Anderson, a St. Paul attorney who long has represented abuse victims, disagreed. His office has a dozen employees now fielding calls from victims who are finally stepping forward, he said, and that it wasn’t uncommon for some to say, “I know of others but I don’t know where they are.”
“These are folks who have been denied opportunity for decades … for help, hope, healing and any measure of justice,” he said, noting that Minnesota’s statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits had prevented them from making legal claims.
Kressel, however, said individuals who were not aware of the Aug. 3 filing deadline may be able to file late claims as allowed by bankruptcy law.
More than 225 abuse claims have been filed against the archdiocese as of this week.
Judge ‘stunned’ by fees
Kressel also approved nearly $2 million in archdiocese payments to its attorneys. The fees “stunned” the judge, who said he has served more than 30 years on the bench and was nonetheless taken aback by the size of the billing.
“The airlines were reorganized for a fraction of this,” he told attorneys. Kressel approved payments of $1.3 million to the Minneapolis law firm of Briggs & Morgan, $45,000 to its longtime St. Paul law firm of Meier, Kennedy & Quinn, and about $400,000 for its victims’ creditors committee represented by the Minneapolis firm of Stinson Leonard Street.
The payments cover services through May 31.
Another key issue in the case is how the deadline affects the archdiocese’s insurance companies, one of the most significant players in a settlement. Although the archdiocese and parishes are separate corporate entities, their insurance policies are often intertwined.
Attorney Dennis O’Brien, representing the parish committee in bankruptcy court, argued individual parishes “have not — nor are they likely — to have abuse claims filed against them.”
Anderson, however, said parishes have been sued by abuse victims in other cases nationally, and that about 50 parishes in the archdiocese have received notices of claims.
Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York, said insurers seek “finality” in court cases.
“They want to know what the ultimate claim cost will be — how many dollars and when,” Hartwig said. “The sooner they can get that, the better.”
Because the archdiocese lawsuit is so complex, “it makes for a trickier environment in terms of reaching a final resolution.”
The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January following a wave of clergy abuse lawsuits. Bob Schwiderski, an abuse survivor who organizes support groups, said he was “appalled” that the court didn’t appreciate the complexity of notifying and locating claimants.
Many suffer from shame, fear, depression and other problems that prevent them from stepping forward, said Schwiderski. Many have left the Twin Cities and Minnesota.
“I’ve talked to three people in the past two weeks who have never stepped forward previously,” said Schwiderski as he left the federal courthouse. “They are now locked out of this.”