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New Orleans clergy abuse plaintiff aims to move bankruptcy-halted case out of federal court

“The longer this case stays in federal court, … the more likely the pedophile priests will die before receiving civil or criminal justice."

NEW ORLEANS — The plaintiff in a Catholic clergy sex abuse lawsuit halted by the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ federal bankruptcy filing is seeking to have his case moved back into state court in hopes of continuing to pursue his claims.

In a filing late Tuesday, the plaintiff’s attorneys argue that the suit revolves around matters of state law and therefore should be transferred back to Orleans Parish Civil District Court rather than handled in the federal system.

It is the first time a clerical molestation claimant has asked to return his case to state court and advance it since the archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 1. The bankruptcy automatically stayed more than two dozen unresolved clergy abuse lawsuits filed in Orleans Parish civil court, which the archdiocese separately moved to the city’s federal courthouse.

The lawyers for the plaintiff, who sued anonymously, argued that moving a case like his to the federal system may have been little more than shopping for a more favorable forum, which they say is not reason enough for the switch. To support this point, the lawyers pointed to the involvement in the bankruptcy case of an attorney, Douglas Draper, who apparently first tried to represent a committee mostly comprised of molestation survivors but ultimately aligned himself with the church.

According to the attorneys for the plaintiff, Draper at one point sent a memo to the plaintiff’s attorneys advising them that federal judges may be more likely to rule that such clerical molestation cases are invalid because they were filed too long after the alleged molestation occurred.

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Draper’s memo to the plaintiff’s attorneys singled out one jurist in particular: U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, who was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan and has written about how he converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 2009 with guidance from then-Archbishop Alfred Hughes

“Imagine the … issue being decided by Judge Feldman or another judge with his judicial philosophy,” said the memo, which was attached to the filing prepared by the plaintiff’s legal team of Soren Gisleson, John Denenea and Richard Trahant.

After sending the memo, Draper enrolled as the bankruptcy attorney representing the interests of more than 150 church parishes, nursing and senior living homes, and other community service agencies all affiliated with the archdiocese.

Draper didn't respond to a request for comment. Archdiocesan officials declined comment, citing a policy against discussing litigation outside of court.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier — not Feldman — is overseeing the case which produced Tuesday’s document. Barbier hasn’t ruled on the filing.

Several of the other transferred abuse cases did end up getting allotted to Feldman.

The plaintiff in Tuesday’s filing alleges that he was sexually molested beginning in the late 1970s — when he was a child — by priests Michael Fraser and Paul Calamari. Fraser and Calamari were named in the archdiocese’s November 2018 list of clergymen who'd been faced with credible allegations of child molestation.

Calamari rejects the plaintiff’s claims though he's admitted to a separate "sin" with a teen before he became a priest. Fraser died without answering the suit.

The plaintiff’s attorneys said Tuesday they had made substantial progress since filing the suit in June of 2019. But that case and similar ones were indefinitely stayed by the bankruptcy filing and then transferred.

The plaintiff’s filing Tuesday aims to move the case back to a venue where it was much further along instead of starting over. The archdiocese could still argue that the stay halting the suit should remain in effect.

But the plaintiff’s legal team could try to convince U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Grabill to at least partially lift the stay and allow for some aspects of their case to be resolved, including whether documents related to the archdiocese’s handling of church abuse claims should be made public, a key point of contention for both sides.

The church said the bankruptcy was necessary because of financial blows its administrative offices absorbed due to the coronavirus pandemic as well as the litigation of abuse cases. The plaintiff’s lawyers have insisted that the true aim of the bankruptcy was to stop the disclosure of any more information that would damage the church’s public standing.

In their filing Tuesday, the plaintiff’s legal team said there is urgency to resolve their client’s case. Besides Fraser’s death, Calamari is 75.

“The longer this case stays in federal court, … the more likely the pedophile priests will die before receiving civil or criminal justice,” the filing said.

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