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Abuse victims challenge legitimacy of Archdiocese bankruptcy claim

The archdiocese is accused of filing for bankruptcy to limit future abuse claims

NEW ORLEANS — Sex abuse victims and others with claims against the Archdiocese of New Orleans argued the local church filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection “in bad faith” and the case should be thrown out during a virtual U.S. Bankruptcy Court hearing Thursday.

Their claims appeared to be bolstered by a letter written to the Vatican by New Orleans Archbishop Greg Aymond on April 28, just two days before the May 1 bankruptcy filing. In the letter, Aymond assures his bosses in Rome, “The archdiocese is not insolvent. We have sufficient cash, cash equivalents and investments to cover 100 percent of our liabilities.”

But he goes on in the letter -- which was read in open court by Davin Boldissar, an attorney for a committee of the church’s creditors – to say the New Orleans archdiocese needs Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to fairly and “collectively” settle 34 sexual abuse lawsuits that had already been filed at that point and to “limit the continuing drain on our resources.”

The church has tried to limit the costs of abuse claims by asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill to set a “bar date,” a deadline by which any more claims can be filed. They originally asked for Sept. 29, but the hearing to set the bar date was pushed back from Thursday to Sept. 17.

The bankruptcy hearing comes the day after Aymond, in a WWL-TV and Times-Picayune exclusive, announced the addition of Brian Highfill as the 64th priest or deacon on an official list of credibly accused clergy.

RELATED: New Orleans' archdiocese adds priest to credibly accused list after almost 2 decades of allegations

Highfill is the first priest in over a year added to the list, and the archbishop made the move after the TV station and newspaper raised questions about a series of abuse claims filed against Highfill over the course of 18 years and the rising frustrations of victims who couldn’t understand why the priest still wasn’t on the list.

In the exclusive interview, WWL-TV asked Aymond why complaints of abuse filed against Highfill in 2002 and 2004 were not considered when a new complaint was filed in 2018 and investigated by the New Orleans Archdiocese and the Diocese of Las Vegas, where Highfill now lives. Aymond said those complaints were not in Highfill’s file and he didn’t become aware of them until more recently.

It took a woman who made the 2002 complaint coming forward again this April to convince an independent review board to recommend adding Highfill to the list.

Highfill’s victims and other abuse survivors said they suspected Aymond was waiting until the last moment before asking the bankruptcy court to set a bar date because so many victims have seen their alleged abuser’s name on the list and felt emboldened to come forward about a painful memory they may have suppressed.

Since the list first came out with 57 names in November 2018, dozens more lawsuits have been filed by alleged victims and even more have been settled out of court.

But Aymond defended the handling of the Highfill investigation and said the timing of his decision to add him to the list and this week’s bankruptcy proceedings was coincidental.

“And I would encourage anyone who says that they were abused by Brian Highfill to please come forward,” Aymond said.

In the TV interview this week, Aymond said no church donations would be used to pay abuse claims and the funds mostly come from insurance. When WWL-TV asked Aymond why the archdiocese needed bankruptcy protection against future claims if insurance pays for them, one of his advisers interrupted to say the archbishop had already answered the question.

In his letter to the Vatican, Aymond estimated the archdiocese’s share of costs to settle the abuse claims – in addition to insurance proceeds -- would be $7 million, which is just under a $7.5 million threshold set by the U.S. Conference of Bishops in 2011 that would have required Vatican approval before filing the bankruptcy case.

Curiously, it’s also less than the $8.5 million the church set aside to pay claims in 2019 even though the archdiocese’s bankruptcy attorney, Mark Mintz, predicted a “run to the courthouse” by claimants and said, “There can be little doubt there will be an increase in claims.”

Grabill ordered both sides to file briefs by next Wednesday and said she wanted to rule quickly because, she said, “This is the whole case.”

RELATED: Losing Faith: The Church Sex Abuse Scandal

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