Camden diocese faces wave of clergy sex-abuse claims

Jim Walsh
Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Published September 1, 2021

CAMDEN - The Diocese of Camden faces 345 new claims of alleged clergy sex abuse as part of its ongoing bankruptcy case, according to attorneys involved in the dispute.

The claims are currently in the early stage of a mediation process while the two sides also battle in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, said lawyers for clergy accusers.

"An accurate accounting and inventory of all cases will be required before any meaningful settlement discussions can be undertaken," said John Baldante, a Haddonfield attorney who filed 70 of the claims.

Among other factors, the parties in mediation need to identify "insurance coverage from past decades applicable to these sexual abuses," Baldante said.

"There is still significant work to ascertain the assets of the diocese, as well as its numerous parishes, churches, schools and entities," he noted.

The diocese has cited the financial impact of sex-abuse claims as a primary reason for its decision to seek protection from its creditors in October 2020.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan at that time said the diocese had paid more than $8 million to settle 71 claims before withdrawing three months earlier from a statewide fund established for victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

He said the diocese faced more than 50 sex-abuse lawsuits at the time of its bankruptcy filing.

The bishop also noted the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it had reduced contributions from parishioners while the diocese had to serve more people in need.

In a statement Wednesday, the diocese said it "takes every claim seriously and is in the midst of carefully reviewing all of the claims."

"The diocese is seeking to provide fair and just compensation to survivors through the Chapter 11 reorganization process and hopes that the court will consider its plan of reorganization as expeditiously as possible," it added.

The filings, known as proof of claims, seek to establish alleged survivors as creditors of the diocese. 

Their contents are not available to the public, said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, attorney whose firm has filed 67 claims.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerrold Poslusny Jr., who is hearing the Chapter 11 case in Camden, had required survivors to file any new claims against the diocese by a June 30 deadline.

"These victims and survivors are entitled to accountability," said Baldante, who asserted the accusers "will fight tenaciously and tirelessly until their voices are heard."

Lawyers are currently clashing over the diocese's desire to settle two survivor claims outside the mediation process.

An attorney for a creditor committee, Jeffrey Prol of Roseland, Essex County, argued in a court filing that the diocese could unfairly use those settlements “as a barometer on which to judge the value of other survivor claims.”

He described the settlements as "ill-advised" and said they “appear premised on an incomplete understanding of the (diocese), its assets and its insurance claims.”

Anderson contended the tactic reflected a hard-ball approach to survivors' claims by the diocese.

"“I see Camden, its bishop and its lawyers as having deployed the most outrageously aggressive strategies," said Anderson.

He asserted the diocese has undervalued its assets in an effort to reduce any awards to survivors and claimed its initial reorganization plan — rejected by Poslusny — would have provided only $10 million to be shared by potentially hundreds of sex-abuse victims.

“Everything they have done is not only unprecedented, but extraordinarily hurtful to the survivors,” Anderson declared.

An attorney for the diocese, Richard Trenk of Livingston, Essex County, rejected those arguments, insisting the creditor committee was using "delay tactics which are solely borne from their concern that the settlements will influence the value of other claims."

Trenk also said a multi-year payment plan for the disputed settlements would increase resources available for other survivors’ claims.

“From the outset of this case, the diocese has clearly and unwaveringly sought to address and fairly compensate the survivor … abuse claims,” Trenk said in an Aug. 6 motion in bankruptcy court.

The diocese — the only one in New Jersey to file for reorganization — serves about 486,000 Catholics in six South Jersey counties.

 Jim Walsh covers public safety, economic development and other beats for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal.

SNAP Network is a GuideStar Gold Participant