Discover more from Friendly Atheist
With more abuse lawsuits on the horizon, Archdiocese of Baltimore declares bankruptcy
A new law gives more power to victims of sexual abuse. The Catholic Church is trying to avoid justice.
This newsletter is free, but it’s only able to sustain itself due to the support I receive from a small percentage of regular readers. Would you please consider becoming one of those supporters? You can use the button below to subscribe to Substack or use my usual Patreon page!
Back in April, the Maryland legislature passed a bill eliminating the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse. While it established a cap on how much money a survivor could receive—based on whether they were suing a public institution, a private one, or an individual—there was finally an opening for those who had suffered abuse decades earlier to receive justice.
The law is set to go into effect tomorrow, on October 1.
So the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is responding by… declaring bankruptcy.
On Friday, Archbishop William E. Lori announced that they had filed for Chapter 11 reorganization, a move that would allow certain parts of the Church to continue functioning while limiting the damages the archdiocese would inevitably face. The move also puts an expiration date on when people can sue the Church for damages, nullifying that aspect of the new law.
Chapter 11 reorganization is the best path forward to compensate equitably all victim-survivors, given the Archdiocese’s limited financial resources, which would have otherwise been exhausted on litigation. Staggering legal fees and large settlements or jury awards for a few victim-survivors would have depleted our financial resources, leaving the vast majority of victim-survivors without compensation, while ending ministries that families across Maryland rely on for material and spiritual support.
Lori was very blunt about how declaring bankruptcy was a direct response to the new law. It’s not a coincidence; it’s a reflex.
The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein explains what happens next (gift article):
… Some legal analysts said the move by the country’s oldest Catholic diocese could limit damages for some survivors, while other experts said it could more equitably distribute Baltimore’s assets and offer anonymity and streamlined financial awards, which some accusers may value.
But it also means there will be no subpoenas or public testimony before a jury, which for some survivors is a blow to transparency and a crucial loss.
“What victims lose is the opportunity to tell their stories in court, and many have been waiting their whole lives to do this,” said Robert Jenner, a Baltimore attorney who represents some of the survivors who planned to sue.
Most importantly for abuse survivors, the bankruptcy process sets a deadline for creditors—including them—to file a claim.
“What if you just can’t face it yet? Or if you’re far away and don’t hear about it?” [Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability] said.
There is an argument to be made that some victims may benefit from the Archdiocese declaring bankruptcy, especially if they haven’t yet begun the process of filing a lawsuit or don’t have an airtight case. The individuals who sued the church earlier could receive giant payouts, leaving fewer assets for those who sue later. (That’s the Church’s rationalization, anyway.) But given that the Maryland law caps rewards for victims at $1.5 million, the Church had plenty of runway before its bank account got depleted. Furthermore, survivors who were awaiting their day in court (or to speak in front of a jury) now stand to lose the most.
It also means the Church can just continue taking in donor money to be used for other activities… and as Cardinal Timothy Dolan reminds us, money can always be moved from the victim fund to the can’t touch this fund before it’s too late.
All of this is happening several months after Maryland’s Attorney General Anthony Brown released his office’s 463-page report investigating sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The four-year project, which was the result of a Grand Jury investigation, found that over 600 children (“but the number is likely far higher”) were abused by 156 predators working with the Catholic Church since the 1940s. Most of the predators were now dead, but some of them who were redacted in the report are still alive and were not previously suspected of any wrongdoing. The names of Church officials who helped cover up their alleged crimes were also redacted in the public report.
Still, the summary was damning:
Time and again, members of the Church’s hierarchy resolutely refused to acknowledge allegations of child sexual abuse for as long as possible. When denial became impossible, Church leadership would remove abusers from the parish or school, sometimes with promises that they would have no further contact with children. Church documents reveal with disturbing clarity that the Archdiocese was more concerned with avoiding scandal and negative publicity than it was with protecting children.
In many cases, the abuse continued even after victims came forward with their stories. Because Church officials didn’t take immediate action, the predators had a green light to continue abusing little kids.
Even when the Archdiocese offered to publish a list of “credibly accused” priests back in 2002, it only included 57 names. The list excluded anyone who was already dead. A second list, released in 2019, included the deceased… but only had 23 more individuals. The most updated list had 152 names. Which meant this report was still more comprehensive than the Church’s most transparent efforts to get to the bottom of the problem it exacerbated.
With the release of that report, and the passage of the new law, there was hope that many victims of abuse would finally realize there was a path forward to file claims against their abusers and the institution that harbored them.
The Archdiocese is now doing everything it can to prevent them from getting the justice they deserve, and they’re putting far more thought into how they can play defense than they ever did to remove the problematic Catholic leaders in the first place.
The bankruptcy will not effect “parishes, schools, and charitable institutions.” Pensions will continue to be paid out to retired employees.
Baltimore is the 36th U.S. Catholic diocese or religious order to file for such protection since the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis exploded into public view in the early 2000s. Baltimore will be the sixth diocese to file in 2023.
According to the Associated Press, the Baltimore archdiocese has paid more than $13.2 million to 301 abuse victims since the 1980s, including $6.8 million toward 105 voluntary settlements.
Keep in mind that the Catholic Church, as you’d expect, fought against the passage of the new law. They Archdiocese’s lobbying arm testified earlier this year that the Child Victims Act was unconstitutional because a 2017 law said no victim of child sexual abuse could sue beyond the age of 38. The newer law lifts that age limit. (Maryland’s attorney general says that’s not a problem.)
Either way, the Archdiocese’s financial position will finally match its ethical one: bankrupt.
I’ve said this before, but the true punishment for the Church won’t come from any of the lawsuits. The institution will only suffer if and when there’s a mass exodus of worshipers who call themselves Catholic. If you’re a Baltimore native who still attends or supports the Catholic Church with your time or money, you’re complicit in their actions. It’s not too late to break ties. Tradition is no excuse to prop up a criminal enterprise.
If you appreciated this article, please subscribe to my newsletter for free (!) or share this post on Reddit, Facebook, or the godawful Bird app.