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Buffalo Diocese hit with 900 abuse claims in bankruptcy court, more than any diocese

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Some of the priests who served in the Buffalo Diocese who were accused of molesting children, from left to right: Thomas L. Kemp, Richard J. Keppeler, Michael Lewandowski, Bernard M. Mach, Loville N. Martlock, Fabian J. Maryanski, Thomas J. McCarthy, Michael Miller, Vincent Mooney, Basil A. Ormsby, Norbert F. Orsolits, Martin L. Pavlock, James F. Rapp, Joseph E. Schieder, Joseph A. Schuster, Gerald Sheehan, Ronald Silverio, Arthur J. Smith, Gerald A. Smyczynski, Clatus E. Snyder, James A. Spielman, Edward Townsend, Samuel J. Venne, Edward J. Walker, Willam G. Ward, John M. Ryan, William G. Stanton, William F.J. White, Robert A. Stolinski, Robert W. Wood, Timothy J. Kelley and Harry Richard Strassberger.

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More than 900 child sex abuse claims were filed against the Buffalo Diocese in federal bankruptcy court by Saturday, the deadline for abuse victims to come forward if they want part of a potential settlement that could cost the diocese tens of millions of dollars. 

The number of claims was double the largest number ever filed in the more than 20 prior diocese bankruptcies in the U.S. since 2004. 

“The total count right now is 924,” said Ilan D. Scharf, attorney for the committee of unsecured creditors in the diocese bankruptcy case. “There are sometimes duplicate claims or amended claims and we’re still working through that, but 924 were filed.”

“Unfortunately, and sadly, they are consistent and describe just some horrific abuse that occurred here,” he added.

Scharf also said that some claims may still be in the mail or have otherwise not been processed yet.

The passing of the deadline Saturday clears the way for the pace of negotiations among the diocese, its insurers and abuse victims to pick up.

The claims will be analyzed and assessed, along with the diocese’s insurance, to determine which insurance policies cover which claims, said Scharf.

“It’s going to take some time to digest the data we just received,” he said.

The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2020 after it was named as a defendant in 260 Child Victims Act lawsuits. Diocese officials said there was no way the diocese could afford to continue its operations, while litigating or settling the lawsuits.

At the time of the filing, diocese officials said they anticipated more than 400 potential claimants.

“The Diocese is fully focused on fulfilling what this process initiated by the Child Victims Act is all about, namely, bringing about a sense of restitution, closure and healing for those who were abused by members of the clergy. This is a tragedy of truly epic proportions and as I have maintained since day one as bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, it is of paramount importance to deal with these allegations forthrightly and to work to repair the enormous damage that has been done not only to the reputation of the Church here in Western New York, but most importantly to the lives of those affected," Bishop Michael W. Fisher said in a statement to The News on Monday.

"The process now continues and will be a protracted one as we work through the legal requirements with the court-appointed creditors’ committee, which of course includes abuse survivors. We will also be working with the various insurance carriers of the Diocese as we address the financial implications of these many claims. It is my hope and fervent prayer – and I know the hope of many of the Faithful across our Diocese – that we can move forward and ultimately bring a close to this very painful and sordid chapter which in no way obscures the tremendous good accomplished each and every day by our Church and those who live faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If all 924 claims move forward, it would amount to the largest number of claimants ever in a diocese bankruptcy. The largest number of claimants to date in a settled bankruptcy is 450 in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to Marie T. Reilly, professor of law at Pennsylvania State University who tracks Catholic Church related bankruptcy cases. The Diocese of Rochester, which also is in a bankruptcy reorganization, received about 465 claims.

Bankruptcy settlement figures for abuse claims range from $9.8 million in the Diocese of Fairbanks in 2008 to $210 million in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2018, according to Reilly.

The Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy claims do not include 106 clergy sex abuse survivors who settled with the diocese in 2019 through a voluntary compensation program that paid out $17.5 million. Those claimants agreed not to sue the diocese in exchange for cash settlements.

The Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy filing put on hold the Child Victims Act lawsuits that accuse Catholic priests and other employees of sexually abusing children, in most cases decades ago.

Last December, Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of New York set Saturday as the deadline for abuse victims to submit claims.

The diocese’s lawyers had sought an earlier date, Jan. 15, 2021. Bucki agreed with the committee of unsecured creditors that the date should coincide with the deadline for filing a Child Victims Act lawsuit, so that any victims who come forward with claims are not confused by differing deadlines. A two-year window for filing Child Victims Act lawsuits also expired on Saturday.

“The fact that we did not truncate the bar date in this case I think gave everybody as much time as necessary to get their claim in,” said Scharf.

Kevin Brun, who is part of the committee of unsecured creditors and has a claim for alleged abuse by a priest in 1976, said he was ready to begin negotiations in good faith with the diocese.

“I’m hoping that finally, once and for all, that they do the right thing,” he said.

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My byline has run in the Ithaca Journal, USA Today, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and the New York Times. I have been a staff reporter at The Buffalo News since 2002 and currently am part of the watchdog team.

Related to this story

These are some of the priests who have worked in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and been accused of sexual misconduct with children. Some were among 42 diocese priests publicly identified March 20, 2018 by Bishop Richard J. Malone. Some were previously identified by The Buffalo News.

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