New clergy sex abuse claims against archdiocese pour in as filing deadline arrives

WWL-TV [New Orleans LA]

March 1, 2021

By David Hammer and Ramon Antonio Vargas

As a 5 p.m. deadline to file sex abuse claims against the local Catholic Church loomed, roughly 50 claimants filed forms saying they were preyed upon by members of the clergy.

Another 370 claimants filed proof of claim forms saying the Archdiocese of New Orleans owed them millions of dollars for other reasons, from outstanding utility company bills to accidental falls on church property.

The New York-based firm processing the compensation demands received at least 56 claims in which the claimant’s name and address was intentionally omitted, a likely signal those were filed by anonymous clergy abuse victims.

That number is likely to grow, according to attorneys counseling alleged victims.

Uncertainty surrounding the total number and value of claims could linger throughout the week. Claims can be filed electronically or by mail. And documents mailed in to the claims administrator, Donlin Recano, will be accepted past the deadline as long as they were postmarked by Monday.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May, and is one of at least 27 Catholic dioceses across the U.S. to do so.

Chapter 11 lets organizations get their books in order while shielding them from the demands of creditors, who have to fill out proof of claims forms proving the bankrupt entity owes them money.

The New Orleans Archdiocese said its reorganization was necessary due to significant financial distress from litigation and settlement negotiations surrounding the decades-old clerical abuse scandal, which prompted New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond to publish a list of priests and deacons who have been considered credibly accused of child molestation over the years.

That roster, first published in November 2018, lists more than 70 clerics.

Aymond’s staff issued a statement saying the arrival of Monday’s deadline — known as a bar date — was an important milestone.

“It is our hope that this brings us one step closer to healing for survivors of abuse and look to the day when we can be reconciled with those who have been hurt,” it read.

But Kristi Schubert, an attorney who helped people fill out clerical abuse claims ahead of the deadline, said her clients found the process to be both logistically vexing and emotionally grueling. Some started filling out claims but grew so frustrated they bailed midway.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that some people didn’t file a claim because they couldn’t decide yet if they were ready to come forward, and the deadline was just too soon for them,” Schubert said.

Federal bankruptcy court in New Orleans had only recorded 52 total claims before Monday, mostly from church vendors and individual Catholic churches. Another eight claims were recorded Monday to bring the total to 60 claims worth approximately $65.8 million.

A tally by a claims administrator, however, showed more than 400 claims dating back several months. Most of the claims in that tally do not relate to clergy sexual abuse of minors.

One of those is from Paul Calamari, a priest who is among more than 70 clergymen named by Archbishop Gregory Aymond as a credibly accused pedophile. He asserts he is owed nearly $70,000 in legal costs and retirement benefits that were discontinued after the church filed for bankruptcy.

The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV sampled some of the attorneys representing the largest groups of abuse survivors, and combined, they estimated helping more than 100 claimants file their forms.

Kevin Bourgeois, a clerical molestation survivor who until recently led the New Orleans chapter of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests and now trains archdiocesan staff on responding to victims’ complaints, said he helped a family friend fill out the form online last week. He agreed with Schubert that the process was psychologically taxing but said he found the process to be technically smooth.

“It’s the hardest thing anyone will ever do because you have to document what happened to you, but it’s easy in the sense that it’s all online, it’s private,” said Bourgeois, who is being paid by the archdiocese for the training he is providing. “In less than an hour we went through everything and there were tears shed, hugs given and support.”

The only abuse claims that qualify for compensation under the bankruptcy process are for sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by ordained clergy prior to May 1, 2020, the date when the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After the proof of claim forms are filed, there will be a court-ordered process for verifying the legitimacy of each claim.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill, who is overseeing the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 filing, has not ruled on a request from clergy abuse claimants to dismiss the church’s bankruptcy case altogether. Grabill has been weighing the decision since August, and observers believe she is unlikely to grant the request.

The abuse claimants’ attorneys contend the church is on much better financial footing than it lets on in its reorganization case. And they have accused the church of heading to Bankruptcy Court merely to settle pending clergy abuse claims as cheaply as possible, with Monday’s bar date essentially serving as an expiration date for all claims involving past clergy abuse that had not been reported by then.