How Church's Ch. 11 Bid Could Shut Out Abuse Victims

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Mary Beth Diaz, a paralegal at Jenner Law in Baltimore, has been helping the firm talk to clients who allege clergy sexual abuse, relating her own experience as the only daughter of an accuser of the late Father Joseph Maskell, depicted in the documentary 2017 "The Keepers" as a serial abuser within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. (Jenner Law)

Since early December, Mary Beth Diaz, a paralegal at Baltimore-based Jenner Law, has fielded hundreds of phone calls from men and women in their 60s and 70s telling her, often through tears, about their experiences being sexually abused as children. Many of them were telling their stories for the first time, she said.

They were calling to inquire about a new law that passed in the Maryland State Assembly in April — the Child Victims Act, which permanently eliminated the three-year statute of limitations on civil claims over child sex abuse. The bill went into effect at the beginning of the month, promising to open the floodgates for suits against institutions like the Archdiocese of Baltimore that protected alleged abusers.

"The survivors I've talked to, a majority of them were always afraid of not being believed," Diaz said. "The Child Victims Act was giving them the opportunity to tell their story and to be believed. That's such a strong thing."

A lot of the credit for Jenner Law's involvement in the CVA litigation goes to Diaz, who alerted Jenner to the issue as her mother was sharing her story with the Maryland Attorney General's Office as a part of a wider investigation into clergy abuse that resulted in a 456-page report published in April. The report ultimately identified more than 160 perpetrators over 80 years of abuse.

Back in the '60s, when Diaz's mother was a girl, she was a parishioner at St. Clement in Lansdowne parish in Baltimore, where Joseph Maskell was a priest at the time. The 2017 Netflix documentary "The Keepers" chronicled the abuse Maskell allegedly inflicted on dozens of students at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School. Maskell, who died in 2001 before he could be charged with any crimes, had resided at St. Clement before being moved to the all-girls school.

It wasn't until about 15 years ago, when Diaz's mother was in her late 50s, that memories of her own abuse began to trickle back.

"She started to have little movie clips that would flash and finally was able to realize what the movie clips were," Diaz said. "It was the repressed memory from the abuse that she had put in a black box in the back of her head."

Diaz has been pivotal to Jenner Law's efforts because clients feel comfortable talking to her, the firm's leader, Rob Jenner, told Law360. As the daughter of a clergy abuse accuser, she can understand where they're coming from, he said.

But the calls Diaz has gotten in the past few weeks from clients have been less than pleasant. The team hit a massive roadblock when on Sept. 29 — just days before the CVA would take effect — the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, putting all cases naming the archdiocese and most entities it shares financial ties with, like parishes and schools, on hold, perhaps indefinitely. By both Diaz and Jenner's measure, this made up more than half the cases they'd been working on.

On the day of the bankruptcy filing, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said in a statement that the church cannot afford to litigate the barrage of suits it anticipated in the wake of the CVA. Accusers and advocates, however, argue that the church moved for bankruptcy protection prematurely, before a single case had been filed against it.

The reality is that so far very few cases under the CVA have been filed at all, and the new law is set to face an expedited challenge before the Maryland Supreme Court to determine whether it unconstitutionally violates defendants' due process rights. So while Jenner has partnered with firms Grant & Eisenhofer PA and Baird Mandalas Brockstedt & Federico LLC to work with hundreds of accusers, they've so far filed only four cases, strategizing to put forth what they consider to be the strongest claims.

people seated at press conference

Jenner Law held a press conference the Friday before the Child Victims Act went into effect announcing the lawsuits it would be filing alongside firms Grant & Eisenhofer and Baird Mandalas. From left to right: child abuse accuser Kimberly Mills Bonham, advocate Gemma Hoskins, attorney Phil Federico and attorney Rob Jenner. Accuser Carolyn Surrick also appeared on Zoom. (Jenner Law)

Moreover, Lori said, paying victims through the bankruptcy process would actually offer a fairer distribution of funds.

"Chapter 11 reorganization is the best path forward to compensate equitably all victim-survivors, given the archdiocese's limited financial resources, which would have otherwise been exhausted on litigation," Lori said in the statement. "Staggering legal fees and large settlements or jury awards for a few victim-survivors would have depleted our financial resources, leaving the vast majority of victim-survivors without compensation, while ending ministries that families across Maryland rely on for material and spiritual support."

The archdiocese did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

For the most part, Jenner's clients, many of whom are still parishioners within the archdiocese, don't buy the church's rhetoric. They're in a state of panic, Diaz said, worried that they've opened themselves up just for the church to silence them again.

"They're pissed. You can hear it — it's like a balloon that deflates," Diaz said. "For a 79-year-old man to call me crying and saying, 'I've never told anybody this. My wife died two years ago, I never even told her, but now that the Child Victims Act is there, I feel like I can finally get it out.' Guess what, sir? You can get it out. But it's going to be in bankruptcy court."

The Archdiocese's Exit Strategy

After the archdiocese's first bankruptcy hearing earlier this month, Jenner said he'd lost almost all hope that any of his clients would see their day in court against the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"None of the survivors are happy we're here," he said. "It's almost certain that this bankruptcy will go through, and the survivors will not get to testify before a jury."

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle Harner agreed to shield archdiocese parishes and schools from lawsuits for now, until it is determined which of the entities are protected under the archdiocese's insurance policies. As a result, many CVA cases remain in limbo.

Filing for bankruptcy to shield a diocese from abuse claims has been in the Catholic Church's playbook for more than two decades, according to Timothy D. Lytton, a professor and associate dean at Georgia State University College of Law who researches clergy sex abuse cases.

By filing for bankruptcy, Lytton explained, dioceses around the country are able to get around the normal tort system, which would subject them to discovery that could reveal a lot about church wrongdoing.

"The bankruptcy process allows for a certain amount of discovery, but only related to the payment of debts," he said. "And so bankruptcy is a way to shield the church from the civil justice system's investigation into its cover-up of clergy sexual abuse."

Bankruptcy is a tool used to give companies a clean slate — to settle all their liability. If the bankruptcy in Maryland goes through, it won't just put a pause on lawsuits against the archdiocese — it will prohibit them entirely, according to one attorney, who did not want to be identified due to his ongoing representation of clergy abuse accusers.

Chapter 11 allows for the archdiocese to put a certain amount of money into a fund that will go toward paying abuse victims, the size of which is determined by how many come forward in what many lawyers have told Law360 is often a rather short window of time. After that window is closed and the debts are paid, the church is off the hook.

There is a chance that the bankruptcy won't go through and at least a few accusers will see their day in court, the attorney said. Since 2000, however, more than 30 Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and its territories have filed for bankruptcy, all citing sex abuse claims, and none have had a creditor successfully file a motion to dismiss the Chapter 11 petition.

Dozens of Catholic Dioceses Seek Bankruptcy Protection

In the last two decades, 31 Catholic dioceses across the United States — with nearly 12 million parishioners, or roughly one-sixth of American Catholics — have filed for bankruptcy amid a litany of sex abuse suits, saying the potential damages would send the churches into financial distress. Critics, meanwhile, say the church has used the bankruptcy process as a tool to shield it from the tort system.


  • Currently in Chapter 11

  • Emerged from Chapter 11

Puerto Rico Guam and Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Virgin Islands American Samoa
A.D. San Juan* D. Arecibo A.D. Agaña D. Saint Thomas D. Samoa-Pago Pago
D. Caguas D. Fajardo-Humacao D. Chalan Kanoa
D. Mayagüez D. Ponce
*The Archdiocese of San Juan filed for bankruptcy because of a legal battle with pensioners, not because of sex abuse claims. Source: Law360 analysis of court documents; Catholic-Hierarchy

But the Archdiocese of Baltimore is a unique case because not a single lawsuit has actually been filed against the church yet. While a business has to prove it is in financial distress in order to file for bankruptcy, in this case, the archdiocese can't point to any claims or judgments against it.

"For the archdiocese to come in now, one business day before the CVA goes into effect, and file for bankruptcy without knowing how many claims they're dealing with, without sharing how much insurance coverage they have, and then to claim that the claims exceed the assets, is premature and disingenuous," said Philip Federico of Baird Mandalas.

The church has argued that the Chapter 11 process allows victims to be more quickly and equitably compensated for their claims, rather than gambling on whether they'll win at trial or risking that the church's coffers run dry after a few initial big wins by plaintiffs.

"The people who file lawsuits first tend to collect, and the people who come later often are out of luck," Lytton noted.

But Lytton said bankruptcy is still usually an attempt on the church's part to limit the pool of victims and the scrutiny the church is subjected to. Dioceses have drawn ire with this strategy, which often comes as accusers are nearing a potential legislative or legal win.

On the eve of its first sex abuse trial, for example, the Diocese of San Diego filed for Chapter 11 in February 2007. The eight-month bankruptcy process ended with the diocese moving to dismiss its bankruptcy filing, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Louise DeCarl Adler scolding the church for misleading both parishioners and the court about its finances after she received a less-than-honest packet in the mail from her former parish asking her to donate to the church's $198 million settlement fund for victims of sexual abuse.

"Chapter 11 is not supposed to be a vehicle, a method, to hammer down the claims of those abused," she said.

And a New York bankruptcy judge expressed frustration last month with the lack of progress toward a Chapter 11 plan for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, particularly critiquing the attorney fees that went into the now three-year-long process.

"If the fees in this case had gone to the victims of sexual abuse, there would be a lot more money available," U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn said.

According to one attorney, church bankruptcy proceedings have been lasting longer and longer for a number of reasons, and no settlements can be paid out to victims until the reorganization of the church's assets has been finalized.

And yet the deadline for which accusers must submit their claims to the bankruptcy court is usually a tight one, several attorneys told Law360, because the bankruptcy filer must determine how much "liability" exists before it can reorganize its assets. This essentially reverses what had been a 20-year-long legislative battle to end Maryland's statute of limitations on child sex abuse civil claims.

Like Diaz's mother, many accusers do not even regain memories of abuse until they are much older, and from there, it's a long and challenging road toward feeling comfortable sharing their stories. The CVA gave accusers not just the luxury but the necessity of time, attorneys said, and the church wiped that away.

"I don't know how many times I've told people, 'If you're not ready, that's fine. You don't have to be ready. You can wait. I'll be here,'" Diaz said. "Now that's completely out the window."

However, Jenner and Grant & Eisenhofer partner Steven Kelly, who is also a lead attorney on the CVA cases, said it's not all bad news. They both agreed that Judge Harner is treating the bankruptcy compassionately and with sympathy for the toll it is taking on accusers.

"One thing that the judge emphasized which made some of our survivors feel better about the process is there is a nonmonetary aspect of the restructuring, adding in policies, procedures, safeguards that lead to more transparency," Kelly said. "You wouldn't be able to do that in a civil lawsuit, so there are some advantages to the bankruptcy process."

As of this week, a U.S. trustee has nominated several accusers to a creditors council that will make decisions on behalf of all claimants in the Baltimore archdiocese bankruptcy. The council and the attorneys it appoints will face the difficult decision of whether to file a motion to dismiss, several attorneys told Law360.

The reality, the anonymous lawyer said, is that even if the bankruptcy is dismissed, the archdiocese will likely file again in a few years when it actually does have evidence of the volume of lawsuits.

On one hand, a dismissal would allow access to the courts and a discovery process that could give a voice to accusers and shed greater light on the church's pattern of abuse, experts say. It would also buy them more time to come forward if the archdiocese does eventually end up in bankruptcy court again.

On the other hand, accusers would be pouring more money into legal fees by taking these cases to court, knowing that it's possible the church will deprive them of any real judgment.

"There's a lot of distrust and bad blood," Kelly said. "[Our clients] have been lied to and intimidated, and the church has acted historically in vile ways. Having a transparent process is so important, and I'm really hoping the creditors committee hires a really good law firm so no matter what happens, they can hold the church's feet to the fire."

Solving the Constitutionality Problem

Diaz said that before the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, she was educating clients about a different kind of hurdle to bringing their cases to court: the constitutionality of the Child Victims Act.

While Maryland is now one of 17 states to adopt legislation giving victims new opportunities to bring previously time-barred civil claims over sex abuse, the laws have faced legal scrutiny.

For example, the Colorado Supreme Court in June struck down a law that created a three-year "look-back" period for accusers to sue, holding that it was unconstitutionally retroactive.

It's a question that Maryland's law will face in short order as well.

The reason Jenner, Kelly and Federico only filed a handful of cases to the state court on Oct. 1 was because of a clause in the CVA giving defendants an automatic path to the Maryland Supreme Court, where the justices will be able to review the law's constitutionality.

Normally, a case that survives a motion to dismiss would have to go through discovery and potentially a trial before it ends up in an appellate court — it's a process that can take years. Under the CVA, however, a defendant who loses a motion to dismiss is given a chance to file an automatic interlocutory appeal to the state's high court before the case moves forward to trial.

If the stars align, the high court's review could happen in less than a year, attorneys said.

"It's practical," Jenner said. "We're not going to make survivors all over the state go through discovery and tell their stories and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars only for somebody years later to come by and say it's unconstitutional."

The Cases

While the cases against the Catholic Church have drawn the most attention, some of the four lawsuits filed by Jenner and the other firms target other defendants as well.

Jenner, Federico and Kelly filed lawsuits on behalf of two former students at the private Key School in Annapolis, Maryland, who say they were groomed, plied with drugs and alcohol, and raped by teachers and classmates in the '70s.

The attorneys also brought a case on behalf of David Schappelle, a former parishioner at St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg, Maryland, alleging that he was molested by parish priest Father Wayland Brown. That case was brought against the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes parishes along the border of Maryland and Virginia.

The lawyers also filed a suit on behalf of Eva Dittrich, the only suit among the four to target a parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Dittrich says she was abused by Maskell, the priest depicted in "The Keepers" and the man whom Diaz's mother accuses of abuse.

"What people have lost in these cases against the church is not just the indignity of the insult — it's a lifelong prison sentence," Jenner said. "You can't lie down when it's quiet at night without thinking about it. You can't go to a movie without thinking about it. You can't drive past the church, you can't get over the anger that you have in losing your sense of faith in God, which was such an important part of their lives growing up. Nothing can happen in their lives that doesn't trigger a flashback of horror."

Dittrich, like many others, is waiting for clarity on whether her parish would be included in the archdiocese's bankruptcy protections. It's still unclear whether her case will be able to move forward, Jenner said.

A Community

Dittrich was one of nine children, and Diaz's mother was one of six, and the families all knew each other, Diaz said. For many in Baltimore, the archdiocese served as a kind of connective tissue for the community.

"You know, there's the turkey dinner, there's the May Day procession. Everybody knows everybody," Diaz said. "But no one ever knew they were both being abused."

Diaz said she hasn't been back to Sunday Mass since her mother gave her full account to the attorney general's office back in 2017.

"Nope, that's too hard. I can't do it," Diaz said. "I can't sit in there and know that the institution that should have protected my mother totally failed and chose to move her abuser, who was a known abuser, from her parish to an all-girls high school. And then to another parish, and then to another parish. And the abuse just continued."

Diaz's mother, now 73, has been an organist for the diocese since she was 14, and she hasn't stopped playing music in Baltimore's Catholic churches since. She was a music director at the parish school throughout Diaz's childhood, and she is now on standby to fill in whenever she's needed.

"If they need somebody to play a funeral, they call her," she said. "If they need somebody to play a Mass because somebody can't come, they call my mother. She runs from parish to parish."

Her mother's musical prowess has actually helped Diaz connect with clients, she said.

"I'll be talking to a survivor and say, 'Where was your abuse?' And they'll say it was at such-and-such church, and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, my mother was the music minister there for a few years.' I know every parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore because my mother has played in probably 90% of them."

Yet sometimes, it's hard for Diaz to process how her mother can continue to work for an institution that abused her.

"I flat out said to her, 'How the hell do you sit on an organ bench and play a Mass when the Archdiocese is basically saying, "Screw you"?'" Diaz said. "She said, 'I don't do this for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. I don't do this for Father Maskell. I do this because this is my ministry. I do this for the people.'"

--Editing by Alanna Weissman. Graphics by Ben Jay.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the church where Diaz's mother was a parishioner as a child. The error has been corrected.

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