Handing a key legal victory to survivors of clergy sex abuse, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood ruled on Saturday that parish and Catholic school assets belong to the Archdiocese of Agana as a whole. – and could therefore be used to help pay for abuse plaintiffs.
The judge’s decision closed a three-year-old claim from hundreds of survivors, represented by 78-year-old Leo Tudela.
“I will remain a Catholic,” Tudela told the court after the ruling, while urging other survivors to come forward for “healing” and put aside differences within the Catholic Church.
Millions of dollars worth of buildings, parking lots, vehicles, cemeteries, bank accounts and other parish and school assets are now part of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy, which could be liquidated.
But the judge and creditors’ committee, along with the archdiocese, said the end goal was to fairly compensate victims of abuse while keeping parishes, schools and ministries open.
The decision in this lawsuit is key in settling the claims, the parties said, because it expands the pool of assets available to pay survivors.
Tudela’s heartbreaking testimony took everyone back to the courtroom when he was 13 and sexually assaulted by a Capuchin friar and then a diocesan priest.
He “humanized” the case for everyone, the judge said.
Judge also said Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes’ apology to all survivors when he said ‘I’m sorry’ brought ‘more healing’ than any other word spoken in court since February 19 .
Attorney Edwin Caldie, representing the creditors’ committee, said hearing the voices of Tudela and the Archbishop and seeing their interaction after their testimony was a positive step for the atonement.
“A seed was planted, it was real. I felt it myself. I think we all did,” Caldie said. “The Church of Guam is one body. It’s time to atone, it’s time to heal, it’s time to unite.”
No resultant trust
The Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors has asked the court to allow school and parish assets to be included in the Archdiocese’s bankruptcy, so that they can be used to compensate survivors of abuse.
The judge ruled in favor of the committee on Saturday, which is represented in the seven-day trial by attorneys Edwin Caldie and Andrew Glasnovich of Minneapolis-based Stinson LLP.
The archdiocese’s argument was that the archbishop only holds these assets in trust, for the benefit of schools and parishes.
The judge said that during the trial, the archdiocese was unable to present “clear and convincing evidence” that such trust exists between the archbishop, the schools and the parishes.
She reiterated that everyone had the same goal.
“That goal is to care quickly, responsibly and transparently for victims of abuse,” the judge said.
The archdiocese and the creditors’ committee said the focus is not just on healing and compensation, but also on protecting all young children.
Archdiocesan lawyer Ford Elsaesser said the Archbishop and the entire Archdiocese will work with the creditors’ committee to provide just compensation to survivors, while ensuring that parishes, schools and Catholic ministries continue to thrive.
Following the judge’s ruling, what were once listed as “disputed properties” will now form part of the bankruptcy estate to help pay abuse claimants.
These include more than 100 lots, school and parish buildings, and cemeteries worth at least $52 million.
They also include more than 70 cars, SUVs, buses and other types of vehicles worth nearly $300,000 and nearly $5.9 million in bank accounts.
The judge made his decision after hearing Caldie’s closing arguments on behalf of the creditors’ committee.
For the archdiocese, attorney Vince Camacho delivered closing arguments, along with attorney Keith Talbott.
More than 100 people watched the closing arguments via Zoom, and among them were survivors of clergy and parishioner sexual assaults.
The judge will next week hear opposition to proposed plans to bail the archdiocese out of bankruptcy, and part of that is payments offered to survivors and other creditors.