A bankruptcy judge granted the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ request to cut short the state deadline for its clergy abuse victims to file their claims — a decision swiftly criticized by victims’ advocates.
Sex abuse victims considering filing claims against the archdiocese will have until Aug. 3 to do so, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel ruled Thursday.
That is nine months earlier than the May 25, 2016, deadline in the Minnesota Child Victims Act, a law that temporarily lifted the legal limitations on filing older abuse claims.
In the weeks ahead, the archdiocese and victims’ attorneys will be blitzing state and some national media with notices of the new deadline.
But a key author of the Child Victims Act said the decision runs against the principle of equal protection under law. Only victims of clergy abuse in the archdiocese will have a shorter deadline, while people considering filing claims against other Minnesota dioceses or religious groups will have nine months longer.
“It seems to be fundamentally unfair: You’ve got different victims being treated differently based on where they live,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chief Senate author of the 2013 law that sparked the recent wave of child abuse allegations against the church.
Latz said the archdiocese was the staunchest opponent of the Child Victims Act, which passed nearly unanimously in both the House and the Senate. Changing the deadline in the bankruptcy process “undermines the people of Minnesota,” he said.
“Just so they can emerge from bankruptcy 9 months earlier?” Latz asked. “That’s an attempt to avoid accountability.”
Will speed up plan
The archdiocese had argued that an earlier cutoff date would allow it to proceed more swiftly with its financial reorganization because its universe of claims would be known considerably earlier than under current law.
“Establishing [deadlines] for parties to file claims in this case is critical to allow the archdiocese to proceed with a reorganization plan and avoid protracted proceedings that could deplete the archdiocese’s assets available to pay sexual abuse claimants and other creditors,” the archdiocese filing said.
The new deadline “is a step in the right direction,” said archdiocese attorney Richard Anderson. It balances the interests of clergy abuse survivors with the archdiocese’s need to move forward.
Kressel left open an opportunity for victims to step forward after the deadline, noting, “The time period can be extended.”
Attorneys for victims had strongly opposed the move, calling it “unprecedented in church bankruptcy cases.”
“No other archdiocese or diocese has even attempted to cut off a legislatively created window period for childhood sexual abuse victims, let alone succeeded,” wrote attorney Jeff Anderson in documents.
Kressel responded that setting filing periods for claims in bankruptcy court is not unprecedented, it is routine.
“Every case is different,’’ he said. “I hope this case follows its own path.’’
Anderson argued that the nature of clergy sex abuse “requires a long period of time for victims to first hear about a deadline, process it, and make a determination about taking action.” He also said a new deadline would create inconsistencies, as child abuse victims filing claims against parishes or religious orders operating inside the archdiocese would still have the May 2016 deadline.
However, Anderson said he appreciated Kressel’s sensitivity to the special situation of child abuse victims.
“The [claims] process protects their privacy and it will be totally anonymous,” he said. “All survivors need to know that now is the time and the best time.”
Bob Schwiderski, advocate for Minnesota’s clergy abuse victims, said the new deadline — in less than four months — is not enough and is another mechanism for the archdiocese to cut its losses. If the archdiocese were serious about reaching all victims, it would have been speaking in churches and launching a campaign to locate them long before now, he said.