The panel represents the voice of the parish in matters of bankruptcy
Chairing a parish steering committee related to the bankruptcy case of the Diocese of Rochester was a learning experience for Father Thomas Mull, parish priest of Notre-Dame de la Paix in Geneva.
“When we started three years ago, I and others knew very little about bankruptcy. It has been a learning-as-you-go process,” Fr Mull said. “I learned a lot, although I can’t say I wanted to know.”
The committee includes four additional pastors; a regional financial director; and two lay parish administrators (see below).
Represent the parishes
Priests on the committee represent all pastors, ensuring parishes have a voice in bankruptcy proceedings, Fr Mull said. Still, he noted that church staff are unfamiliar with bankruptcy law, so they rely heavily on lawyers to explain court proceedings “at the elementary school level.”
Suzanne Krebs, regional finance director for Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Tioga counties, said she brings a practical financial perspective to the committee by explaining parish financial concerns as well as budgeting and other financial procedures.
“The parishes of the diocese have worked very hard to reach a fair and equitable settlement for the survivors,” she observed, acknowledging that the delays in the case have been frustrating. “Progress has been much slower than I expected.”
Father Mull noted that COVID-related restrictions were significantly slowing down the mediation process. “Doing meditation through (virtual means) is a real, real challenge,” he said. “COVID has really slowed us down. Once we can see each other again, things move on.
Mediation requires strict confidentiality
Working closely with the committee is bankruptcy attorney Timothy P. Lyster, a Woods partner Oviatt Gilman who represents all diocesan parishes in bankruptcy proceedings.
Lyster, a Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner, said the committee helps with legal representation for parishes regarding the bankruptcy case, by attending various mediation sessions and meetings with individual parishes.
During parish sessions, “We get questions from pastors and finance directors, and try to answer them as best we can,” Father Mull remarked. But he noted that all participants are required to keep the negotiations confidential, so they are not able to tell their colleagues much.
“We don’t want people to think we’re hiding things,” but participants are bound by confidentiality and often can’t predict what’s going to happen next, he said. “Things change from meeting to meeting.”
Confidentiality is key “to protect the survivors and protect the process” by maintaining trust between participants, Father Mull added, noting that no one wants to say the wrong thing and derail the process.
“I personally feel that there is trust” between the participants in the mediation, he said. “I’ve come to really respect a lot of the lawyers we’ve worked with, not just their patience with us, but also their sincerity in reminding us that our goal is to bring some kind of justice to people who have been wronged. … For me, that has been a healthy thing and a good thing. Sometimes I think … we should remind them of the need for justice and the recognition that when we sin, we have to make amends for that sin.
Civil cases move forward
Lyster and litigator William G. Bauer of Woods Oviatt also represent parishes in approximately 350 civil lawsuits that are beginning to make their way through the state court system.
Early in the bankruptcy process, the committee representing victims of abuse agreed to a “standstill agreement” under which victims refrain from moving forward with cases. However, as mediation efforts bogged down, the survivors’ committee declined in early spring to renew the agreement, and in a May 23 ruling, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul R. Warren denied the petitioner’s request. diocese to suspend actions against parishes.
Lyster said the majority of parishes are facing cases, which “are now scheduled for initial status conferences with (state Supreme Court) Justice Deborah Chimes.” The process calls for the parties to confer and agree on a discovery planning order and business to pursue, he said.
“These types of cases usually take a while to come to trial,” he said, especially given the large influx of cases and the backlog of courts due to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID.
Global settlement is the goal of the bankruptcy process
Nonetheless, he said, “we are still working towards a consensual resolution…of the abuse claims against the parishes through mediation and the bankruptcy filing.”
If the parties can reach a global settlement, they will ask the bankruptcy court to enter a “channeling injunction” redirecting survivors’ claims against the parishes to be satisfied from a settlement trust, Lyster said.
“So here, just in general terms, the idea would be to limit any recovery to the assets of the settlement trust, thereby relieving parishes and other Catholic-affiliated entities from continued exposure through litigation,” he said. -he declares.
Expressing optimism that this goal can be achieved “as soon as possible,” Fr. Joseph A. Hart, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Thomas More, Brighton, said a channeling injunction has been a key part of settlements in each of the other U.S. dioceses that have resolved historical abuse claims through bankruptcy, and that remains the hoped-for outcome here.
“The fact that (all parties) are back in mediation indicates that there are possibilities here, but there still needs to be give and take on both sides,” added Fr. Hart, who served as diocesan vicar general. from 1998 to 2015.
Father Mull agreed. “I think you have to stay optimistic. It’s a very slow process of give and take, building trust with the people we deal with back and forth.
“I tell (parishioners) to keep praying and praying for a just end to all of this,” he said.
Members of the parish committee
- Father Augustine Chumo, Immaculate Conception, Ithaca
- Kevin Foy, Parish Administrator, Holy Cross, Rochester
- Brett Granville, Parish Administrator, Mother of Sorrows, Greece
- Father Joseph Hart, Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Thomas More, Brighton
- Father Matthew Jones All Saints, Corning
- Suzanne Krebs, Regional Director of Finance, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Tioga Counties
- Father Thomas Mull, President, Parish of Our Lady of Peace, Geneva
- Father James Schwartz, St. Joseph and Holy Spirit, Penfield.