People alleging sex abuse by New Orleans clergy must come forward by March 1, judge rules

A federal bankruptcy judge on Thursday set a March 1 deadline for purported victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy to make claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans, resolving months of legal arguments over how much time to allow before they are barred from seeking compensation.

After a four-hour court hearing, Judge Meredith Grabill ruled that anyone alleging they were abused before the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 1 must come forward in the next 5½ months or lose the right to seek money via the judicial system.

Grabill’s selection of a "bar date," a deadline that is standard in bankruptcy cases, could touch off a new wave of abuse petitions against the local church.

Abuse allegations historically have skyrocketed after the setting of bar dates in other dioceses' bankruptcies. For instance, church lawyers have said, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had 23 pending clergy abuse claims when the bar date for its 2011 bankruptcy filing was picked. After the bar date’s setting, more than 570 additional claims poured in.

Grabill set a separate Nov. 30 bar date for vendors or other entities that say the church owes them money over matters which don't involve sexual abuse at the hands of priests or deacons.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy lets organizations get their books in order while shielding them from creditors’ demands. The New Orleans Archdiocese said its reorganization was necessary amid significant financial distress from the decades-old clergy abuse scandal, compounded by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.  

Church attorneys initially asked Grabill to set a Sept. 29 bar date, which the archdiocese said would give purported abuse victims who had not come forward “sufficient” time to prepare their petitions while also letting the church’s fiscal reorganization progress “at an appropriate speed.”

But the seven-member creditors’ committee, which includes six purported victims of clergy abuse, balked at that date. Through their attorneys, they asked the court for a March 31, a date endorsed by the federal government office that helps administer bankruptcy cases.

Roger Stetter, a lawyer who has represented dozens of clergy molestation victims, contended it was too early even to consider an abuse bar date, given that restrictions meant to slow the spread of coronavirus frequently prevented would-be claimants from meeting in person with their attorneys.

“It is simply too soon to set an abuse bar date during a pandemic that has turned the world upside down,” Stetter wrote in a court filing.

The church then suggested Jan. 29.

Grabill said March 1 was "splitting the baby."

Both sides agreed on the Nov. 30 bar date for petitions that don't involve abuse. 

An attorney for the U.S. Trustee’s Office also recommended that Grabill require the church to provide notice of the bar date in at least one national publication, in addition to the 10 Louisiana newspapers in which the church had proposed advertising. A church attorney said Thursday the archdiocese planned to advertise the bar date in 27 Louisiana newspapers, a national periodical and online.

Grabill has not ruled on a request from clergy abuse claimants to dismiss the church’s bankruptcy case entirely. Their attorneys say the church's reorganization filing exaggerates the archdiocese’s purported financial troubles. They have also accused the church of heading to Bankruptcy Court in hopes of settling some three-dozen pending clergy abuse lawsuits as cheaply as possible while using the bar date to limit the number of future molestation claims.

The archdiocese’s lawyers counter that federal law does not require the church to be insolvent before seeking Chapter 11 protections. Church lawyers also assert that their client's ability to cover current liabilities isn’t necessarily permanent.

The archdiocese acknowledges that more than 60 of its clergymen, some dead, have been faced with credible claims of child sexual molestation. Victims rights advocates argue the true number is larger.

Clergy molestation survivor Kevin Bourgeois, who leads the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, on Thursday issued a statement expressing disappointment that Grabill didn't all...

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