Catholic abuse survivors: Baltimore archbishop to listen in court if victims testify

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

March 19, 2024

By Alex Mann and Jonathan M. Pitts

Survivors of sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore may have an opportunity to describe their suffering in bankruptcy court, and say they struck an agreement with the church to have Archbishop William Lori there to hear them.

The committee assigned to represent all survivors of clergy abuse in the diocese’s bankruptcy case raised the prospect of at least two days of grueling victim testimony in a court filing Friday, saying it would serve as an opportunity to humanize the technical, money-oriented proceedings.

It also would restore to survivors the chance to share their stories in a courtroom, an option lost when the church declared bankruptcy in September, effectively side-stepping a new state law that eliminated time limits for lawsuits stemming from child sex abuse, the committee’s attorneys wrote.

The request for the victims’ testimony needs the approval of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner, who is presiding over the archdiocese’s case. Harner had not, as of Tuesday, granted the request. But as the filing from the committee’s attorneys noted, she has publicly encouraged victims to participate in the proceedings.

If the judge gives the greenlight for such testimony, Paul Jan Zdunek, chair of the survivors committee, told The Baltimore Sun, “it is the committee’s understanding that the archbishop will be there.”

Zdunek said he believed it was critical for Lori to attend “so that these survivors can face him and tell him face-to-face, as opposed to via the media or via their lawyers. It’s important for he and the church to hear so they can keep front of mind how these children, who are now adults, were affected and how its shaped their whole lives.”

Spokespeople for the church have not responded to requests from The Sun to provide comment on the plan for Lori to attend the sessions. Yvonne Wenger, director of public relations for the archdiocese, said Friday she couldn’t confirm it and said over the weekend she had no further information. Spokesman Christian Kendzierski was not able to make a statement Monday and Tuesday about Lori’s participation. An attorney for the church did not respond to a request for comment on the arrangement.

Wenger said in a statement Friday that the church supported “an open and transparent process that can lend itself to healing for victim-survivors.”

“This includes our support of an opportunity for victim-survivors to testify during proceedings in pursuit of an agreed-upon plan for a timely and fair global settlement,” she said.

Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse celebrated the potential for victims to be able to address the bankruptcy court, adding that it would be particularly meaningful with Lori in attendance.

“It’s a wonderful step in the right direction to getting justice for survivors, to getting some accountability within the diocese, a level playing field where survivors are on the same plane as the bishop,” David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, told The Sun. “This is nothing but good news for survivors.”

It is unusual, but not unheard of, for survivors of clergy abuse to have the opportunity to speak in court. In their filing, the committee’s attorneys cited two previous Catholic Church bankruptcy cases where judges have given victims the opportunity to present statements in court. One was involved the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the other was for the archdiocese in Guam. In those cases, survivor testimony “served as an important step in the process of healing, communication, and atonement for Survivors and the Church,” attorneys for the committee wrote.

“An opportunity exists in this case to allow Survivor claimants a meaningful voice early in the process,” their filing said. “Pursuing this opportunity would communicate clearly to Survivor claimants that their voices are valued, that their suffering was (and remains) real, and that their histories will no longer be silenced or overlooked in deference to transactional or institutional priorities.”

The prospect of two harrowing days of survivor testimony on April 20 and May 8 represents the possibility for the most dramatic court proceeding related to abuse in the Baltimore diocese in more than 20 years. In that earlier case, the late Cardinal William Keeler testified in 2002 in Baltimore Circuit Court at the trial of a man who confessed to shooting a priest who the defendant said had raped him. While on the stand, Keeler apologized to the defendant, Dontee Stokes.

Attorney Jonathan Schochor, whose firm represents a member of the creditors committee, expects the survivors’ testimony in the bankruptcy case to be “unburdening.”

“It’s going to be extraordinarily emotional,” Schochor told The Sun.

Teresa Lancaster, an Annapolis attorney who survived abuse in the Catholic Church as a child and advocates for other victims, described the potential for survivor testimony particularly meaningful, given that many victims wanted to pursue lawsuits in state court under the Child Victims Act.

Lancaster and other survivors had long advocated for such a law, but for years came up short against strong pushback from the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church in Maryland — until last spring. She is among those who credit the report released last April by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, detailing the abuse of more than 600 children by 156 employees of the Baltimore diocese, with providing momentum for lawmakers to pass the child victims law in their 2023 session.

The victims act lifted a previous time limit for people who were sexually assaulted as children to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled their torment. Seeking to protect its assets from an expected flood of lawsuits, the Baltimore diocese declared bankruptcy on Sept. 29 — two days before the new law took effect on Oct. 1.

Instead of abuse allegations being made in public lawsuits in state court, they must be filed as claims in the bankruptcy proceedings. After survivors complete a two-page “proof  of claim” form, and, for some, an optional supplemental questionnaire, experts will evaluate their filings and assign a dollar amount based on the extent of their suffering. Survivors have until May 31 to submit their claims, and can choose for their filings to be public or kept confidential.

“Many of the survivors have related to me that they wanted to tell their stories, because if we had gone to court we would’ve been able to tell our stories before juries,” Lancaster told The Sun.

Baltimore Sun reporter Dan Belson contributed to this article. This article may be updated.