Attorney for clergy sex-abuse victims claims Camden diocese ‘underreported’ assets

The Courier-Post [Cherry Hill NJ]

May 12, 2021

By Jim Walsh

The Diocese of Camden “grossly underreported” its assets in a bankruptcy filing in an effort to “disadvantage survivors of clergy abuse,” a lawyer charged Wednesday.

Attorney Jeff Anderson asserted Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the diocese’s leader, “has at least $774 million under his control.”

In contrast, he said, the diocese’s bankruptcy filing lists assets of almost $54 million and net assets after liabilities of $28.1 million.

“We’re here to sound the alarm,” said the St. Paul, Minnesota, attorney, who called the diocese’s financial accounting “a lie, a facade, a fiction.”

“They are hiding their assets and their true ability to pay (clergy sex abuse victims), the same way they’ve been hiding offenders and the role of top officials,” claimed Anderson.

The diocese rejected Anderson’s claims, saying it “continues to fully comply with all requirements” of U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

“Any claim to the contrary is purposefully inflammatory and does nothing to advance the cause of justice,” it said.

The diocese sought bankruptcy protection in October 2020, citing the impact of clergy sex abuse claims and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is seeking to reorganize its finances under Chapter 11 protection from creditors.

As part of its filing, the diocese asserted it “has not shied away or skirted any responsibilities relating to the survivor claims but, instead, ran out of time and money to address the outstanding claims”

Anderson said his estimate of $774 million includes assets disclosed in the bankruptcy filings, as well as the value of real estate  held by the diocese and its 62 parishes.

He asserted 51 properties, listed in the bankruptcy filing “with a total value of $0,” were worth $23.6 million based on county property records.

Anderson said his research, compiled in a 124-page report, also found five diocesan properties that were not disclosed in the filings. They were assessed to be worth $2.8 million, the lawyer said.

“The overall value of all the property held by the parishes and missions within the Diocese of Camden was calculated to be more than $524 million,” Anderson said in a statement.

But the diocese said the parishes are “considered to be separate from the diocese by both New Jersey statutes and by the Internal Revenue Service.”

“To claim that the assets of the parishes are, in effect, the assets of the diocese is completely erroneous and only muddies the Chapter 11 process and its efforts to provide compensation to victims,” it asserted.

The diocese has reported paying about $18.2 million to resolve 170 clergy sex abuse claims since 1990.

“The average survivor claim has received $107,191,” it said in a court filing.

It also reported paying almost $950,000 for victims’ therapy costs.

A reorganization plan submitted at year-end 2020 proposed a $10 million fund for future payments to victims of clergy sex abuse.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerrold Poslusny rejected the plan in March, saying the diocese’s disclosure statement “fails to provide adequate information.”

He noted the plan estimated the diocese could face another 100 claims by a June 30 deadline, with payments expected to be about $110,000 each.

But the plan, which drew multiple objections from attorneys for creditors, did not consider the possibility that claims could exceed 100, Poslusny said.

“Without knowledge of the number of claims or the aggregate alleged amount of those claims … it is not possible at this time to determine the treatment of each claimant,” said the judge.

“I have serious doubt whether the (diocese) will be able to confirm a plan until the (June 30) bar date passes,” he said.

The diocese said it believe “expeditiously resolving these issues will save millions in legal and administrative fees and expenses.”

“These monies will be better served supporting both the victims of clergy sex abuses and those whom the diocese serves through its ministries,” it asserted.

However, Anderson said bankruptcy filings “show the bishop had more than $223 million in cash, investments and holdings under the diocese,”

The diocese, which serves about 486,000 Catholics in six South Jersey counties, also noted an ongoing financial squeeze in its bankruptcy filing.

Gross revenues fell to $53.2 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2020, down from $63 million a year earlier. Both figures were less than expenses of $66.2 million in the 12 months ended June 30, 2020, and $73.4 million in the previous year.

The diocese has said parishioners’ contributions continued to decline last year due to the economic impact of the ongoing pandemic.

Jim Walsh covers public safety, economic development and other beats for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.