Priest abuse victims oppose diocese actions in bankruptcy case

The Day [New London CT]

November 7, 2021

By Joe Wojtas

The committee that represents people who say they have been sexually assaulted by priests and other members of the Diocese of Norwich have filed a motion in federal bankruptcy court opposing the Catholic diocese’s attempt to prohibit victims from filing claims after Feb. 10, 2022.

The claimants’ committee, which is being represented by the Bridgeport law firm of Zeisler and Zeisler, wants a 120-day window from the date that a plan advertising the deadline, otherwise known as the bar date, is approved by Judge James Tancredi, as opposed to the 90-day window being requested by the diocese. 

In addition, the committee is opposing aspects of the claim form that alleged victims have to submit including questions such as whether victims ever got married, what jobs they have had and whether they were ever sexually assaulted by anyone else. It says these are irrelevant to the victims’ claims of sexual assault by diocesan employees and are designed to limit the diocese’s exposure to damages. In addition, the committee states they also a pose “the very real risk of disocuraging survivors from submitting claims altogether.”  

Tancredi is expected to rule on the issues when he holds a hearing Tuesday afternoon. The diocese’s public relations firm did not respond to an email requesting comment about the motions.

In July, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of more than 60 young men filing lawsuits in which they charge they were raped and sexually assaulted as boys by Christian Brothers and other staff at the diocese-run Mount Saint John Academy in Deep River from 1990 to 2002. Mount Saint John was a residential school for troubled boys whose board of directors was headed by retired Bishop of Norwich Daniel Reilly. Since then, additional people whose sexual assault allegations involved not only Mount Saint John but diocesan churches have filed claims. The bankruptcy process, which freezes lawsuits against the diocese, will determine the assets of the diocese and how much each victim will receive in damages.

Deadline for filing claims in dispute

Claimants’ committee attorney Stephen Kindseth wrote in the motion that the claimants, who were minors when the abuse occurred, should be provided with a reasonable opportunity to learn about the process of submitting a claim and then complete and submit it.

He wrote that some additional time is appropriate because claims by survivors of sexual abuse are “vastly different” from commercial creditors in typical bankruptcy cases.

“The nature of the abuse and societal and personal stigma associated with sexual acts — especially of the nature involved in this case — make disclosure of abuse extremely difficult for survivors. As such, a deadline to file sexual abuse claims must provide a reasonable time for survivors to process their abuse in a manner that allows them to disclose the details of their claims,” he wrote.

He pointed out that among 19 similar case over the past six years, sex abuse survivors were given an average of 142 days to submit a claim from the date in which the judge set a deadline. 

Kindseth wrote that the committee also recognizes that the diocese’s legal and financial professionals have incurred an “extraordinary amount of fees and expenses to date” and that having a slightly extended deadline could compound the risk of the diocese incurring further substantial fees and expenses. But he wrote that the diocese’s choice of law firms and the manner in which it has managed the case and its expenses “should not justify prejudicing the survivors by imposing an unreasonable time limitation for them to participate in the claims process.”

A separate motion filed by Kindseth’s associate Eric Henzy last week harshly criticized the fees the diocese has paid to its team of bankruptcy professionals, saying it is rapidly and massively diminishing the assets available to the victims. The diocese has racked up more than $2.2 million in legal and financial services fees through Sept. 30 with Henzy estimating another $400,000 to $500,000 being spent since Sept. 30.  

With the diocese spending $110,000 a week in legal fees, Henzy has filed a motion objecting to extending the period of time for the diocese to file bankruptcy. He wrote that at the rate the diocese’s team is consuming its assets, the case and the assets must be taken out of the hands of the diocese as soon as possible.    

Questions criticized by victims committee 

While Kindseth wrote that the claimants committee agrees some specific additional questions should be included in the proof of claim form to establish a claim for sexual abuse, “the multiple questions requiring essentially the disclosure of the who, what, when and where as well as the extent of harm caused will simply and fairly take significant time for each survivor to recall,
comprehend and articulate in writing.” He said the diocese wants to ask the additional questions to learn more about the victims’ personal lives in an effort to develop arguments to limit the damages the diocese has to pay them. 

“Requiring such disclosures as a condition to the prima facia establishment of their substantive claims in this bankruptcy case is repugnant to the proof of claim process, completely unfair to the survivors who may not understand the legal consequences involved and almost certainly will serve to discourage survivors from submitting claims altogether,” he wrote in the motion.

The question ask about victims’ marital status and whether they have ever been married or have children, what school they attended and any diplomas or degrees they received, whether they served in the armed forces, where they are employed, their entire job history, their current or former affiliation with any religious organization and whether they were involved in any other incidents of sexual abuse other than those they allege in their claim.

The questions are similar to the extensive questions  asked by lawyers defending the diocese in past lawsuits from those who say they were sexually assaulted by diocesan priests. Those questions, went much deeper into a victim’s background, and were criticized by victims’ advocate as being asked to discourage victims from proceeding with the suit. 

Kindseth wrote that the claims form “repeatedly warns” that the failure to complete the form may result in the victims’ inability to  receive compensation. He further wrote that the diocese and its insurer, Catholic Mutual, are seeking evidence to minimize the effect of the abuse on the lives of the victims or identify an alternative cause of the damages they claim.

“The compensation due a survivor of sexual abuse as a minor while in the care of a clergy member should not be reduced based upon whether he, later in life, attended school, served in the armed forces, obtained employment, got married or had children, or whether he separately had been subjected to sexual abuse,” he wrote.

More advertising needed about filing claims

The claimants committee maintains the diocese should expand the advertising of the bankruptcy and the deadline beyond area  newspapers. It recommended it be published in the Providence Journal and the Four County Catholic, a diocesan publication. The motion also ask Tancredi to require and not just request that all diocesan parishes display the notice and publish it in their newsletters and bulletins.

Kindseth also categorized the diocese’s plan to first publish the notice no later than 45 days before the deadline and the second no later than 30 days as “woefully inadequate.” He wrote that the purpose of the claim period would be undermined by not publishing it until there were 45 days left. He also wrote the notice should be published weekly during the entire period and also be done in Spanish as many Spanish-speaking boys attended Mount Saint John. In addition, he said news releases about the claims process should be sent to all local radio and television stations.      

Information about the bankruptcy and filing claims can be found at   joewojtas