‘It’s time to heal’: Judge rules church, school assets part of bankruptcy estate

Guam Daily Post

February 27, 2022

By Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

Handing a key legal victory to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood on Saturday ruled the assets of Catholic parishes and schools belong to the Archdiocese of Agana as a whole – and could therefore be used to help pay abuse claimants.

The judge’s ruling capped a three-year-old request from hundreds of survivors, represented by Leo Tudela, 78.

“I will stay a Catholic,” Tudela told the court after the ruling, while also urging other survivors to come forward for “healing” and to put aside differences within the Catholic Church.

Millions of dollars worth of buildings, parking lots, vehicles, cemeteries, bank accounts and other parish and school property are now part of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy estate, which could be liquidated.

But the judge and the creditors committee, along with the archdiocese, said the end goal is to justly compensate the abuse survivors while keeping the parishes, schools and ministries open.

The ruling in this trial is key in the settlement of the claims, the parties said, because it expands the available pool of assets to pay the survivors.

Tudela’s heart-wrenching testimony took everyone in the courtroom back to the time when he was 13 years old and was sexually assaulted by a Capuchin brother and then a diocesan priest.

He “humanized” the case for everyone, the judge said.

The judge also said Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes’ apology to all survivors, when he said “I’m sorry,” brought “more healing” than any other words said in court since Feb. 19.

Attorney Edwin Caldie, representing the creditors committee, said hearing the voices of Tudela and the archbishop and seeing their interaction after their testimony, was a positive step for atonement.

“A seed was planted, it was real. I felt it myself. I think we all did,” Caldie said. “The church on Guam is one body. It’s time to atone, it’s time to heal, it’s time to unite.” 

No resulting trust

The Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors asked the court to allow the inclusion of school and parish assets into the archdiocese’s bankruptcy estate, so they could be used to compensate abuse survivors.

The judge on Saturday found in favor of the committee, represented during the seven-day trial by Minneapolis-based attorneys Edwin Caldie and Andrew Glasnovich of Stinson LLP.

The archdiocese’s contention was that the archbishop only holds these assets in trust, for the benefit of the schools and parishes.

The judge said over the course of the trial, the archdiocese wasn’t able to present “clear and convincing evidence” that such a resulting trust exists between the archbishop, schools and parishes.

She reiterated that everyone has the same goal.

“That goal is to expeditiously, responsibly and with transparency – take care of the victims of abuse,” the judge said.

The archdiocese and the creditors committee said the focus is not only the healing and compensation but also the protection of all young children.

Archdiocese attorney Ford Elsaesser said the archbishop and the entire archdiocese will be working with the creditors committee to bring just compensation to the survivors, while also making sure that Catholic parishes, schools and ministries ill continue to thrive.

As a result of the judge’s ruling, what was once listed as “disputed properties” will now be part of the bankruptcy estate to help pay abuse claimants.

Those include more than 100 lots, school and parish buildings and cemeteries worth at least $52 million.

They also include more than 70 cars, sport utility vehicles, buses and other types of vehicles worth nearly $300,000, and nearly $5.9 million in bank accounts.

The judge issued her ruling after hearing the closing arguments from Caldie on behalf of the creditors committee.

For the archdiocese, attorney Vince Camacho delivered the closing arguments, along with attorney Keith Talbott.

More than 100 watched the closing arguments via Zoom, and among them were survivors of clergy sex assaults and parishioners. 

The judge will hear next week the opposition to the proposed plans to get the archdiocese out of bankruptcy, and part of that is the offered payments for survivors and other creditors.