Abuse victims hope to address bankruptcy court; archbishop will attend

Catholic Review - Archdiocese of Baltimore [Baltimore MD]

March 20, 2024

By Christopher Gunty

The Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors in the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Chapter 11 reorganization case has asked bankruptcy court Judge Michelle M. Harner to allow victims of clergy abuse to present survivor statements at upcoming hearings in April and May. 

Archbishop William E. Lori told the Catholic Review he will attend both court sessions. He said the archdiocese was in favor of the victim-survivors having a chance to present their stories.

“I don’t think that very many of us can really understand the depth of pain suffered by victim-survivors,” the archbishop said. “I think it’s important for me and for church leaders continually to hear from victim-survivors about what happened in their life and what that brought about in their lives. 

“I also think it’s a moment when victim-survivors experience a moment of empowerment and justice. And, I think their testimonies will have a big impact on my mind and heart and on the proceedings that are to follow. I really admire the courage of these individuals to come forward and to speak in a very public way about what it is that happened to them,” Archbishop Lori said.

The archdiocese, through legal counsel, filed a notice with the court March 20 supporting survivors’ statements. The archdiocese acknowledged that while “no amount of action can completely atone for the harm done as a result of abuse, being aware that the ability to share one’s story can be a significant element of the healing process, the Debtor endorses the request to present victim-survivor statements in court on two separate occasions.”

The filing confirmed that Archbishop Lori would personally attend both sessions, consistent with the archdiocese’s practice of supporting survivors in their healing process.

Paul Jan Zdunek, who chairs the committee of seven survivors who represent all potential victim-survivors, told the Catholic Review that those affected do not normally get to tell their stories in a bankruptcy case the way they would in litigation. “We talked in the beginning that they should have an opportunity to share what the church did to them in the past.

“It’s also important that the archbishop is there to hear that – not that he has not heard (victim’s stories) before. It’s important to have a representative of the church there to hear not just what happened to them, but since then how it turned their lives upside down,” he said.

Archbishop Lori said he has met with victim-survivors many times over the years, and he appreciates their willingness to speak with him. “I have learned how deeply evil sexual abuse is – the physical, psychological and spiritual damage it inflicts.

“But I’ve also been privileged to journey with some victim-survivors toward healing and wholeness – not only psychological, but also spiritual wholeness and that is very humbling,” the archbishop said. “It is a great privilege to walk with these individuals, for sure.”

Zdunek said some of the members of the committee met with Archbishop Lori and his team in December. “We had a chance to get to know each other, so we could look at this process over the next two years.” He added that it’s always good to meet as human beings, face to face. “It was helpful for him to meet us and for us to see him.”

The court set a deadline of May 31 for anyone who wishes to make a claim for civil damages relating to sexual abuse of a minor by clergy or other personnel in the archdiocese. 

The filing from the attorneys representing the victim-survivors noted that they have had the opportunity to address the court in other diocesan bankruptcy proceedings. “These Survivor statements served as an important step in the process of healing, communication and atonement for survivors and the church,” it said.

At a Nov. 6, 2023, hearing early in the process, Harner said that although not every victim-survivor wants to go on the record in court, “there should be a way this court can provide people a chance to be heard.”

Six members of the creditors committee were in court for a hearing Dec. 18, at which they stood and were acknowledged by the judge. 

“An opportunity exists in this case to allow Survivor claimants a meaningful voice early in the process,” the March 15 filing noted. 

Archbishop Lori said that having the statements in court “helps other victim-survivors to feel more comfortable in telling their story.”

If Harner approves, two hours will be set aside for the victim-survivors’ impact statements on both April 8 and May 20 at the federal courthouse in Baltimore. 

The committee requested that to encourage candor, the victim-survivor statements would be off the record and not transcribed by a court reporter. Normally, all proceedings are transcribed, with the transcript released later by the court.

Zdunek said, “We want to encourage survivors to feel comfortable. … In order to have this be as effective as possible, they need to have options, so they are in control of the consequences of telling their truth.”

Nothing precludes victim-survivors from telling their stories publicly in other ways, if they so choose.

“We are just grateful to have the opportunity for have survivors come forward and have the court listen and the archbishop listen, and let them have that platform as part of the healing process,” Zdunek said. He noted that the chance to speak at the hearings is not limited to the seven victim-survivors on the creditors committee. “We want to make sure we open it up to other survivors and not just take that moment to ourselves. There are a lot of stories out there,” he said.

“Telling a personal story in public could be very difficult for everyone. We appreciate the court allowing us to do this,” Zduenk said.

Archbishop Lori said the archdiocese remains committed to two objectives on which he focused when the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. “One is to bring about as much healing and in as equitable fashion as possible to as many victim-survivors as possible. That’s number one. Number two is to maintain the mission of the archdiocese to proclaim the faith, to worship the living God in our parishes throughout the archdiocese and to engage in the works of charity,” he said.

Child protection remains a part of the archdiocese’s mission and ministry. “The archdiocese has been committed to the protection of children for decades. Its policies, procedures and its commitment have only grown stronger. And that is continuing unabated now and in the future.”

Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org.