Victims of clergy sex abuse and powerful legal firm named to Harrisburg Diocese bankruptcy case
By Ivey Dejesus
March 9, 2020
|Lara Fortney-McKeever, one of five sisters who was sexually assaulted by a Harrisburg Diocese priest, has been named to the diocese's bankruptcy case. In this file photo, Fortney-McKeever is flanked by her sisters as she speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in 2018.|
Photo by Sean Simmers
One of five Dauphin County sisters who were sexually abused as children by a priest in the Harrisburg Diocese has been selected as a member of the committee that will oversee the diocese’s federal bankruptcy case.
Lara Fortney-McKeever along with two other survivors of clergy sex abuse have been appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee’s Office to serve on the committee.
The other two survivors are Mark J. Padula Jr., and Patrick Duggan.
The court on Friday also named Rob Kugler as the lead legal counsel to the committee. Kugler, a Minneapolis attorney, has represented sexual abuse survivors in lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
The committee - known as the Official Committee of Tort Claimants - will represent the interests of all other parties and survivors in the case, and will have a saying in critical decisions, including determining what monies and diocesan assets will be tapped to make final determinations on settlement.
As with all bankruptcy cases, the entity that has filed for bankruptcy (the diocese) retains its own legal representation, but does not have influence over the legal representation of the “creditors’ committee.” The creditors — in this case, the victims seeking recompense — are represented by the Kugler firm, in addition to their own attorneys.
The Diocese of Harrisburg is responsible for all legal bills from both sides, and will settle its financial obligations through its assets.
According to 2019 Washington Post article, Kugler charges $680 per hour, and on abuse cases he and his colleagues usually work for a “blended rate” of $450 hourly.
The Harrisburg Diocese last month filed for federal bankruptcy protection in the Middle District of Pennsylvania claiming it needed bankruptcy protections in the face of the growing lawsuits pending from clergy sex abuse cases.
The Harrisburg Diocese last year settled 111 sexual abuse claims through a voluntary victim compensation.
Lara Fortney-McKeever and her sisters in 2018 were among scores of victims who came forth to share their stories in the aftermath of the statewide grand jury investigation that uncovered systemic and widespread clergy sex abuse across the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
The five sisters, part of an 11-member family raised in Dauphin County, were sexually abused by the late Augustine Giella in the 1980s. The family, which largely lived in silence for 26 years, began to share their story with media outlets after their abuse was detailed in the 2018 grand jury report.
Fortney-McKeever, along with sister Patty Fortney-Julius, have a civil lawsuit pending against the Diocese of Harrisburg. The suit was filed last year in New Jersey, and names the Archdiocese of Newark in the suit. The lawsuit takes advantage of New Jersey’s newly enacted civil window legislation. The sisters are beyond the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania but they would be able to seek a settlement with the diocese in bankruptcy court.
Duggan of Harrisburg claims that starting when he was 13, his history teacher at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School began to ply him with alcohol and drugs to then sexually molest and rape him. Duggan, 58, claims that teacher Ronald Stewart, who lived next to the school playground and across the church, continued to abuse him until he was 17. Stewart died in 2010.
Duggan was barred from the victim’s compensation fund because his alleged predator was a teacher. The diocese’s compensation fund - which paid out $12 million before closing out - like the other programs established across the state - narrowly defined eligibility in the program to victims claiming they had been sexually abused as children by priests. Victims claiming that their predators were teachers, nuns or other employees were barred from making claims.
Bankruptcy cases involving the Catholic Church can take years to conclude.