Sex abuse victims seek to testify in Baltimore Catholic archdiocese bankruptcy case

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

March 15, 2024

By Alex Mann, The Baltimore Sun

The committee representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s bankruptcy case is seeking to give victims an opportunity to tell their stories in court.

In a legal brief filed Friday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Baltimore, attorneys for the group of survivors representing all of the diocese’s victims, known as the Creditors Committee, asked a judge to allow survivors to give testimony about their abuse over several hours during hearings in April and May.

The Baltimore diocese, America’s oldest, declared bankruptcy on the eve of Maryland’s Child Victims Act, which lifted a longstanding time limit for abuse survivors to sue perpetrators and the institutions that enabled their torment, taking effect Oct. 1. Survivor advocates had long fought to pass the law, eventually overcoming a strong lobbying effort from the church.

Bankruptcy was a strategic decision from the church to limit its liability and protect its assets. The move, however, also allowed the church to effectively sidestep an expected flood of lawsuits under the victims act. As a result, instead of abuse allegations being made in public lawsuits in state court, they now must be filed as claims in the bankruptcy proceedings. They may or may not be made public before they are evaluated by experts and assigned a dollar amount based on the extent of their suffering.

“Survivor voices have been silenced for many years,” attorneys for the survivors committee wrote. “This proceeding is likely the only opportunity that Survivors in Baltimore will have to seek acknowledgement and justice for the decades of isolation and pain they endured.”

The decision of whether to allow survivors to give statements in court falls to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner, who has presided over the archdiocese’s case and has, as the filing from the committee’s attorneys notes, encouraged victims to participate in the proceedings.

“Based on past experiences of its counsel, as well as feedback received from Survivors and their attorneys in this case to date, the Committee believes that accommodating the direct involvement of Survivor claimants in these proceedings will properly balance the case narrative and deepen the collective understanding of the histories and perspective of a critical constituency in the case,” attorneys for the survivor’s committee wrote.

“The Committee,” their filing continued, “further believes that providing Survivors with a meaningful voice in these proceedings will serve to build trust in the process and, ultimately, enhance prospects for a timely and fair global settlement that includes expanded protocols to support the protection of children within the Archdiocese going forward.”

The diocese, which is referred to as “the debtor” in bankruptcy court, has not filed a response to the survivors’ committee’s request.

A spokesperson for the archdiocese, Yvonne Wenger, said in a statement Friday evening that the church “supports 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.

Paul Jan Zdunek, chair of the committee of seven survivors tasked with representing the rest, told The Baltimore Sun the committee “worked it all out” with archdiocese lawyers before filing its request Friday.

“In a normal bankruptcy proceeding, you wouldn’t have this kind of testimony,” Zdunek said. “But we felt it was important, as we have from the beginning, to represent the victims — not only from a legal perspective, but also to have their voices be heard.”

Zdunek offered a preview of how he expects the survivors testimony to unfold, describing the statements as an important breakout from a technical process that’s focused on monetary determinations.

“We tend to get caught up, especially for bankruptcy proceedings, with all the legalese, and then we forget about the human side of what has happened here. … This is just straight stories, uninterrupted,” Zdunek said. “There won’t be any challenges from legal teams, from the debtor, from the court, from anyone, which is extraordinary.”

The filing from the survivors committee cites 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.

Attorneys for the Baltimore survivors committee wrote that victim statements in those cases “served as an important step in the process of healing, communication, and atonement for Survivors and the Church.”

“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.”

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

“It’s a great move for survivors,” Lancaster told The Sun. “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.”

Also, survivors attorneys said they expected such testimony would draw further attention to the case ahead of the deadline for survivors to file abuse claims in bankruptcy court. Though the bankruptcy proceedings are expected to span years, the deadline, known as a “claims bar date,” is May 31.

Reserving the right to present further survivor statements, the committee asked Harner to set aside two hours during hearings April 8 and May 20 for victim testimony.

Committee lawyers requested that the survivors’ statements not be transcribed by a court reporter. Typically, all parts of federal court cases are transcribed by official stenographers.

As the Baltimore diocese’s case advances in federal bankruptcy court, scores of lawsuits filed under the Child Victims Act involving other defendants have inundated Maryland courts. Complaints targeted private schools and public school systems, correctional facilities for children, and churches. They allege abuse by teachers, guards, priests and others in positions of authority over children.

Almost as quickly as the Baltimore diocese declared bankruptcy, the neighboring Archdiocese of Washington challenged the child victims law as unconstitutional. The legal fight first came up in a lawsuit filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, where three men say in a proposed class-action lawsuit that they were sexually assaulted as children by employees of the Washington diocese, which is headquartered in Hyattsville, and that their torment fit a broader pattern of abuse and coverup by the church.

A circuit court judge denied the Washington diocese’s request to throw out the lawsuit, saying she believed the child victims law is constitutional.

Taking advantage of a provision in the law allowing for a mid-lawsuit appeal, the Washington diocese said it planned to promptly take its legal challenge to the intermediate Appellate Court of Maryland and then to the state’s Supreme Court. Experts expect Maryland’s high court to ultimately settle constitutional questions about the law.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.