‘Almost at the finish line’: Judge weighs deal to pay Guam clergy sex abuse survivors

Pacific Daily News [Hagåtña, Guam]

October 3, 2022

By Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

Survivors of Guam clergy sexual assault are a step closer to obtaining compensation as a judge on Monday began hearing arguments that would get the Archdiocese of Agana out of bankruptcy and pay claimants $34 million to $101 million.

“We’re almost at the finish line,” U.S. District Court of Guam Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood, who’s been serving as bankruptcy judge in the archdiocese case, said on the first day of the hearing.

The remaining concerns about the plan related to the Boy Scouts of America, among other things, are expected to be addressed, and the judge assured of a “reasonable, fair, expeditious” decision.

If the judge confirms or approves the fifth amended joint reorganization plan this week, payments could start reaching survivors in “90 to 120 days,” according to attorney Robert Kugler of Minneapolis-based Stinson LLP, counsel for the creditors committee.

Attorney Edwin Caldie, also representing the creditors committee, told the court about the 99.3% support to the joint plan by abuse survivors, referring to the 152 votes to “accept” it versus only one vote to “reject” it.

There are more than 270 Guam clergy sex abuse claims from those who said they were raped or sexually molested by parish priests and others associated with the Guam Catholic church as minors.

The judge earlier admonished attorney Michael Berman for not following the court orders on the voting process for all his 77 clients. Theirs were not counted toward the total votes, the majority of which came from the survivors represented by attorney Delia Lujan Wolff’s law firm as well as two other law firms.

‘It is time’

Caldie, in his opening statement, said the whole process is mainly about two things: justice and healing for the survivors and returning the archdiocese to “some kind of normalcy.”

He said it’s time to put an end to the ugly, expensive chapter in the Guam church’s history.

“As Mr. (Leo) Tudela said, ‘No more delays. It is time, it is time,’” Caldie added.

Archdiocese of Agana Vicar General Father Romeo Convocar, who was among the witnesses Monday, testified that the archdiocese won’t file for another bankruptcy if the current bankruptcy exit plan is confirmed, and that the joint plan is “far and equitable” to all claimants.

“It may be very difficult for us with limited resources, but we need to continue with our ministry,” Convocar said, as archdiocese attorney Ford Elsaesser asked him a series of questions. Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes is currently on medical leave.

Josie Villanueva, the archdiocese’s chief financial officer, also said “it’s about time” the archdiocese gets out of bankruptcy. The archdiocese sought bankruptcy protection in January 2019, amid a string of abuse claims.

Most of the attorneys representing abuse claimants, the archdiocese and other parties were in the courtroom, as the judge preferred. But online, dozens of other abuse survivors and attorneys also watched the proceedings.

Retired U.S. District Court Judge of Oregon Michael Hogan also testified in person as the unknown claims representative.

Sources of fund

Caldie told the judge that the plan proponents and Continental Insurance Co. reached a settlement agreement in principle, amounting to $1.75 million.

This brings to nearly $20 million the contributions to the trust from church insurers. The bulk of the contribution will be coming from AIG Insurance, at $18 million.

At the hearing, the archdiocese testified about the $6.6 million in cash contribution from the archdiocese.

The joint plan is anticipating up to $55 million to come from the Boy Scouts of America, but this is not guaranteed.

There’s also $1 million to $1.5 million worth of properties for survivors’ burial plots, as well as Catholic school scholarships for their families.

More than $18 million worth of real estate will also be signed over to the trust, which would sell the properties and use the proceeds to compensate abuse survivors.

Two families whose parents and grandparents donated land to the archdiocese decades ago on Monday continued to ask the court for the parcels to not be sold.

The two separate properties, donated by the Pangelinan and Sgambelluri families, are estimated to have a combined value of $600,000. Zita Pangelinan, representing her family, asked that theirs be set aside instead as a place of healing for survivors and others, including the use of indigenous healing.

Leo Tudela, who’s representing clergy abuse survivors in the creditors committee, directly addressed the Pangelinan and Sgambelluri families.

“We understand your situation. We know what’s going on in the family, CHamoru culture, but this problem, we didn’t ask for it. It came to us in a very traumatic trauma,” the 79-year-old survivor said.

During a break in the hearing, Tudela and the creditors’ attorneys shared their optimism about this week’s confirmation hearings.

“I think we’re feeling really positive, and I think the best reasons to feel positive are, it’s looking like we may be able to get closure today for so many people who were hurt and who suffered for so long and also to let the church to start to heal from this ugly chapter of its existence and to move on,” Caldie said.

Tudela echoed the sentiment. “I think it’s gonna be a very positive ending.”

Attorneys representing plantiffs, Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, comment on the progress made during a confirmation hearing, regarding Guam’s clergy sexual abuse cases before the District Court of Guam, on Oct. 3, 2022.

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert can be reached at hgilbert@guampdn.com.