Judge grants access to sexual abuse claims to leaders from implicated parishes

| September 4, 2015 | 0 Comments

A federal bankruptcy judge ruled Sept. 3 that access to confidential sexual abuse claims made against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis shall include parishes implicated in the claims.

After hearing oral arguments earlier that afternoon, Judge Robert Kressel authorized, for each parish identified in the claims, review of the claim forms by five parish leaders and the parish’s attorneys.

Kressel said access could be extended only to a parish’s pastor, two trustees serving on the parish board with the pastor, the parish finance council chairperson, the parish business administrator and the parish’s attorneys. The reviewers would be required to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Richard Anderson, a Briggs and Morgan attorney representing the archdiocese, said the ruling was not a victory for any party involved, but a step “in the right direction” in mediation, where multiple parties are working together to help the archdiocese pay claimants equitably and emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“Our goal is to bring the case to a conclusion that everyone can live with, while protecting the privacy rights of all involved. In addition, I would say that we trust the parish personnel to honor the terms of the confidentiality agreement,” he told The Catholic Spirit.

Kressel ruled in response to an Aug. 13 motion of the official parish committee of unsecured creditors, who asked that parish representatives be allowed to review sexual abuse filings that involve their parish. A committee representative said the information was important in parishes’ work with insurers and key to successful mediation.

In the motion, the parish committee argued that parishes and religious orders “alleged to be involved in or responsible for alleged sexual abuse in a Sexual Abuse Proof of Claim form will need to have information regarding those claims in order to evaluate whether to contribute to settlement of such claims as part of the global mediation.”

During the oral arguments, all parties agreed that expanding access to the confidential documents for the parishes would be helpful to the Reorganization mediation process, but disagreed on the number of people who should be given that access.

Kressel indicated that he would approve the motion, but would limit the number of people who had access, citing concerns about claimants’ privacy.

Anderson noted during the hearing that a similar extension should be offered to representatives from religious orders implicated by some of the claimants. Judge Kressel said he would address that request separately. The archdiocese subsequently filed a motion, scheduled to be heard Sept. 17, to extend access to religious orders participating in mediation of claims that implicate their members.

Orders participating in mediation are the Christian Brothers, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Franciscans, Crosiers, Benedictines, Society of St. Columban (Franciscan), Redemptorists, Dominicans and Franciscans, Third Order Regular.

Following the hearing, attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents a group of sexual abuse claimants, emphasized that the confidential nature of the review extension should protect claimants.

“This judge is going to enforce the confidentiality provision so that whoever is informed of the information under this order will be under strict orders and court supervision to abide by it, and I have confidence they will have to — and if they don’t, there will be hell to pay both by this judge and by us,” he said.

In response to a series of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of minors, the archdiocese filed for Reorganization Jan. 15 and began mediation with attorneys representing claimants following the first hearing. In May, the court established a committee representing all 187 of the archdiocese’s parishes, which joined mediation.

Sexual abuse claimants seeking to be part of the Reorganization were required to file claims by Aug. 3. The archdiocese received about 400 abuse claims, which are under a confidential review.

Prior to the Sept. 3 ruling, parties who could view the claims filing forms were limited to archdiocesan representatives, attorneys for the archdiocese, insurance companies, the creditors committee, a court-appointed mediator, a trustee overseeing payments to creditors and law enforcement. All reviewers are required to sign confidentiality agreements.

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