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Catholic churches, schools now on hook for clergy abuse, Aymond says

Individual Catholic churches, schools and ministries in the New Orleans area will have to share some of the costs of resolving clergy abuse claims, Archbishop warns.

NEW ORLEANS — Individual Catholic churches, schools and ministries in the New Orleans area will now have to share some of the costs of resolving hundreds of clergy abuse claims, Archbishop Gregory Aymond warned in a letter Friday, contradicting promises he made when the archdiocese declared bankruptcy in May 2020.

Aymond distributed a letter to clergy at the annual convocation of priests, explaining that expenses from the archdiocese’s three-and-a-half-year bankruptcy case have far exceeded his attorney’s predictions. A letter Aymond sent the Vatican in April 2020 indicated out-of-pocket expenses for the bankruptcy would be less than $7.5 million.

It now appears the cost of settling more than 500 claims is likely to exceed $100 million.

As of last month, the bankruptcy attorneys’ fees alone – some as high as $800 an hour – had surpassed $26 million.

When the church first filed for bankruptcy, Aymond assured area Catholics that “no money from parish collections will be used to resolve claims. Parish funds are separate from archdiocesan accounts and the pastor decides how those are used for parish ministry.”

In Friday’s letter, Aymond said that’s no longer the case.

“We now know that there must be a contribution from the apostolates,” he wrote, using the term for parish churches and schools, charities and ministry programs operating under the archdiocesan umbrella. “We do not yet know what that total contribution will be or what will be asked of each entity. I felt it important to share this information with you as it represents a significant change in our original understanding of the Chapter 11 proceedings and will, in some cases, affect future planning.”

He signaled more property will go on the block, writing the archdiocese would “work to reduce the number of properties owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and our apostolates. Soaring insurance rates and costly maintenance have impacted our ability to maintain appropriately the over 1,400 pieces of property and remain good stewards of our resources.”

Aymond blamed a change in state law in 2021 that allowed three years to file civil lawsuits seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse, regardless of how long ago the abuse allegedly happened. He said the number of abuse claims ballooned from about 30 lawsuits in 2020, which he said were already “too costly to defend,” to more than 500 proofs of claim filed in bankruptcy court by a March 2021 deadline.

He also said the bankruptcy process “has been much longer, (more) complicated and (more) costly … than anyone could have predicted.”

In an interview with WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune in 2020, Aymond explained that insurance would cover most of the sexual abuse claims payments and the archdiocese’ investments and property could be sold to fill in the gaps, if necessary.

When WWL-TV asked Aymond why it was necessary to file for bankruptcy if insurance would cover most of the costs, a member of his communications team interrupted to stop the line of questioning.

Aymond did say that progress is being made in the court-administered mediation process to negotiate a final settlement with abuse victims.

But just last month, court records show the church’s lawyers opposed setting a deadline to come up with a final settlement. Attorneys for abuse claimants asked for that deadline after a judge in New York recently ordered a Catholic Diocese there to come up with a final settlement by October or be kicked out of bankruptcy.

In the bankruptcy case in the Rockville Center Diocese on Long Island the judge has cited the church for delaying the process, which hasn’t happened in the New Orleans case.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to comment on why its lawyers opposed such a deadline here.

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