The bankrupt Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden says it is willing to put more money on the table for survivors of clergy sex abuse.
But attorneys for the victims are balking, describing the offer as “paltry” and “inappropriate,” and planning to fight it in court.
Amid mounting legal bills and an ongoing impasse with a claimants committee, the Diocese on Tuesday asked a federal judge to approve a bankruptcy reorganization plan that would create a $26 million fund for at least 320 survivors, or average payments of about $81,250.
The plan could increase to $40 million “if survivors choose to accept tax-free payments over seven years,” the diocese said in a statement, calling the proposed amounts “substantial and consistent” with previous payments.
“The point has been reached where survivors should have the choice to accept compensation now,” the statement said.
The proposal prompted a swift reaction from the survivors’ lawyers.
“This is just an insult,” said Greg Gianforcaro, of Gianforcaro Law in New Jersey, who represents 70 survivors.
Gianforcaro said the plan “has no survivor input” and is “just an extension of what we’ve seen with regard to hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.”
John Baldante, of Levy, Baldante, Finney & Rubenstein in New Jersey, who also represents about 70 survivors, described it as a “terrible plan.”
“It’s an effort by the diocese … to dictate to the victims what the diocese thinks is good for them,” Baldante said.
“I don’t want to engage in hyperbole, but it’s just outrageously offensive that they would offer such a paltry amount of money, and offer it under the guise of being generous,” Baldante said.
Last October, the diocese filed for bankruptcy, seeking protection from financial claims after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law in 2019 that allows victims of decades-old abuse to file new lawsuits. The diocese also cited a loss of revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A bankruptcy reorganization plan submitted in December 2020 would have created a $10 million fund for survivors. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jerrold Poslusny rejected that offer.
In making the case for its latest plan, the diocese said the bankruptcy has led to “enormous” legal fees of more than $7 million, noting that the money is “no longer available to victims.” Between 1990 and 2019, it said in court filings, it had paid more than $10 million to abuse victims, at about $102,222 per claim, in addition to $8 million to victims through New Jersey’s Independent Victim Compensation Program in 2019.
Attorneys for abuse survivors say the diocese has more money than it is disclosing.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Lowenstein Sandler law firm, which is counsel for the committee of survivors, filed court motions that asked the bankruptcy judge to eliminate the diocese’s ability to unilaterally propose a plan of action, and accused Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan of mismanaging church assets.
“The diocese is trying to improperly lowball the value of these claims,” said Lynda A. Bennett, a lawyer at Lowenstein. She described the offer of $26 million to survivors as “woefully inadequate” and said the committee is “not interested at all” in agreeing to $40 million in payments spread out over seven years.
The diocese did not have additional comment Tuesday beyond its statement on its reorganization plan. If the plan is approved by a judge, the diocese says payments could be made as soon as later this year.
The diocese serves about 486,000 Catholics in Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, Cape May, and Atlantic Counties.