CNA Staff, Jan 11, 2021 / 05:06 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Buffalo released thousands of clergy abuse documents and related records to abuse victims and their lawyers this week as part of an agreement in ongoing clergy abuse negotiations during its bankruptcy.
According to The Buffalo News, these records were given to victims in exchange for an agreement that pending lawsuits against individual Catholic entities such as parishes or schools are stopped from proceeding.
These abuse victims, who make up a committee of unsecured creditors in the ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization for the diocese, have also agreed to keep the contents of the records confidential.
It is unclear if the records will ever be released to the general public, though Marci A. Hamilton, CEO and legal director of Child USA, a nonprofit which seeks to prevent child abuse, told The Buffalo News that it is likely that the victims will push for their eventual publication.
“It means a lot to them to find out what those facts are. They’re almost always primarily motivated by a desire to know the truth and to expose the truth and then to be able to see that it doesn’t happen again,” Hamilton told The Buffalo News. The Diocese of Buffalo declared bankruptcy in February 2020 after more than 250 clergy abuse lawsuits were filed against it during a one year “lookback” window opened by New York’s 2019 Child Victims Act. The window, which closes August 14, 2021, allows abuse victims to file abuse lawsuits long after their statute of limitations had ended.
Last May, the diocese asked a federal court for an injunction against all outstanding clergy sex abuse litigation against Catholic entites such as parishes and schools, which are named as co-respondents in CVA lawsuits and have not themselves declared bankruptcy. The diocese sought a permanent injunction on litigating these cases in order to reach a “global resolution” for all cases.
The release of internal abuse documents to abuse victims, which was made in exchange for halted litigation and the continued confidentiality of those documents, was a controversial move. Hamilton told The Buffalo News that a bishop could choose to publish abuse records rather than using them as a negotiating tool. Attorney Richard P. Weisbeck Jr., who represents 35 plaintiffs in CVA suits against Catholic parishes, schools and other entities, said he was also against the agreement.
“If you’re going to get the protection of a bankruptcy court from lawsuits, and as part of that bankruptcy proceeding, you’re required to turn over documents and information to creditors, that should never be secret,” Weisbeck told The Buffalo News. “That’s frustrating the intent of the Child Victims Act, which is not only to get compensation for people who were injured as children, but also to expose the wrongdoing of organizations that protected child molesters within their ranks.”
Weisbeck’s clients are not part of the agreement, according to the ruling of Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of New York, who permitted the deal between the diocese and the creditor committee. Greg Tucker, a spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo, said that the publication of these documents would raise issues of privacy for other abuse victims who did not want their names known, among other problems. “The process of disclosing details contained in files is a protracted one and will necessarily be guided by privacy requirements in the interest of victim-survivors as well as others. Whether publicly disclosing the contents of files would promote those goals is something Bishop Fisher will be considering after he is installed in mid-January,” Tucker told The Buffalo News. Bishop Michael Fischer was appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Diocese of Buffalo after Bishop Richard Malone, who resigned amid accusations of abuse cover-up in December 2019. Fischer’s installation in Buffalo will be held Jan. 15.
Fischer has not yet indicated whether he would release the confidential abuse files, though Tucker told The Buffalo News that the bishop “has already expressed his commitment to transparency and the essential work of bringing about healing among those harmed by clergy sex abuse.”