Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Milwaukee archdiocese's reorganization plan shatters hope

Rev. James E. Connell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Feb. 17, 2014

An attorney once told me that bankruptcy is about money, nothing else, just money, and I suspect the attorney is correct. The Bible teaches that the love of money is the root of all evils (1 Tim 6:10), not some evils but all evils, and I hold to the veracity of this teaching.

And the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's reorganization plan recently filed in the bankruptcy court shows a desire that no sexual abuse claimant receive money. Yes, 128 claimants in category No. 9 (statute of limitations) will be paid. But about these claims the plan states that the archdiocese has "objected to" them, yet feels that successfully objecting to the claim would require "a full trial." It's a cut-your-losses approach. It would be cheaper to pay the claimants than to pay the trial costs.

So, to the archdiocese, no claim has merit. Is this how bankruptcies work?

Here is why this reorganization plan shatters hope.

The archdiocese went to great efforts to invite into the bankruptcy process the victims/survivors of sexual abuse "by any clergy member, teacher, deacon, employee, volunteer or other person connected with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee," as was stated on the public postings about filing a claim before the Feb. 1, 2012, "bar date." No eligibility restrictions were mentioned. And when the archdiocese recently announced its reorganization plan, the role of eligibility restrictions was not discussed.

Yet, the reorganization plan clearly shows that eligibility restrictions are central to the archdiocese arguing that no claim has merit. Some of these restrictions are because the alleged abuse was by a member of a religious order or by a lay person. Other reasons for the dismissal of claims are the statute of limitations and the lack of proof that the archdiocese committed fraud.

But neither the public postings nor the Abuse Survivor Proof of Claim form stated any claim eligibility restrictions. Rather, both documents invited participation in a way that acknowledged the financial reality of the archdiocese, while also providing a gesture of hope for justice and healing.

It could be, therefore, that survivors of sexual abuse interpreted the process as one in which the Catholic Church was wanting do what is right and good, even if not required by law. The gesture by the archdiocese could have been seen to indicate that the church was willing to remedy abuse cases even if beyond the statute of limitations (truly, it's difficult for some survivors to speak up promptly) or even if there was a prior settlement (maybe it wasn't really fair) or even if the abuse was by a religious order priest (after all, they can't serve in the archdiocese without the permission of the archbishop). Indeed, the bankruptcy claims process seemed inviting, not restrictive.

Eligibility restrictions should have been stated clearly on the public postings and on the proof of claim form, as well as in the various archdiocesan communications so that survivors to whom the restrictions applied would have realized that they would not share in the bankruptcy settlement. No false hopes would have been created. Indeed, doing so would have been a humane gesture of justice.

But, to introduce these restrictions after claims had been filed with the court was disingenuous and further generates distrust of Catholic Church leaders. For some/many/all of the claimants, participation in this bankruptcy process took great courage. To be turned away now adds to trauma, not to healing.

If the dismissal of the claims has been the intention of the archdiocese all along, then shame on all involved for having raised the hopes of many people, survivors and non-survivors alike, and then shattering those hopes.

Yet, the matter rests with the bankruptcy court. And some key elements of the case are still in an appeals court process. Who knows what will happen?

For me, I hope for justice: equity for the parties that serves the common good of society.

Rev. James E. Connell is a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and an advocate for victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

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