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Parishioners may have to foot the bill for church abuse lawsuits

Some Catholics are furious over local archdioceses asking parishioners for money to help pay abuse cases.
Posted at 8:48 PM, Sep 20, 2023

It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and locals and tourists make their way into the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

As they seek peace through prayer inside the country's oldest cathedral, many of these attendees come with a heavy heart: The Archdiocese is struggling under payments owed to survivors of sex abuse estimated to be in excess of $100 million. 

Mark Vath is one victim, but he's also a victims' advocate, as the New Orleans representative of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

"We want justice and consequences. Period," he said. "These people should be punished for what they did, especially men of God."

The Archdiocese of New Orleans says when they originally filed for bankruptcy in 2020, they were facing 30 abuse claims. Today, they say that the number is 500.

In a letter posted on the archdiocese of New Orleans website, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said back in 2020, attorneys told him that it would only impact the archdiocese administrative offices and not parishes, schools or ministries.

Three years later, he admits that's just not true anymore. A change in Louisiana law allowed a wider window to file abuse claims and an unexpected number of people did.

The newest controversy has to do with who will end up paying for the hundreds of lawsuits filed against the archdiocese.

The church says insurance and selling some of the archdiocese's 1,400 properties isn't going to cover costs now, and people must contribute.

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"It's a bit of a myth to think that the diocese has this kind of storehouse of wealth that there's available to pay these creditors," said Marie T. Riley, Penn State law professor. "You can see from what's happening in the Archdiocese of New Orleans that it doesn't, and that in order to pay these claims, we're going to have to ask current Catholics who had nothing to do with it, who could not have stopped it even if they had a chance."

Riley says many other Catholic institutions have relied on parishioners to help pay claims, including New York state, New Jersey and Oakland, California.

"Six of the eight dioceses in New York state have filed for bankruptcy in the wake of statute of limitations reform legislation in New York," Riley said. "The diocese of Camden, New Jersey, has similarly filed for relief in the wake of statute of limitations reform legislation there."

Outside Sunday mass at St. Dominic in New Orleans, parishioners try to make sense of it all.

"It was very disappointing, and I know a lot of people are very discouraged," Riley said. "My only thoughts are that we have to remember our faith is rooted in God, and humans are not perfect. They make a lot of mistakes, and unfortunately, this one didn't go very well with the archdiocese."

When asked if she thinks it's fair for parishioners to pay, one churchgoer said it's necessary.

"I think what's important for the parishioners is what they come out of pocket for will be simply to maintain their own parishes," said Gayleen from Bucktown.

"You know, we give to the church to do good things, so we just hope that the bankruptcy judge and whoever else is running this is gonna do the right thing and give the money to whoever deserves it," said Paul from Lakeview.

Actor Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native and a Catholic, posted after the archbishop's announcement, saying, "The Catholic Church now wants its followers to be complicit in their generations of crime & sin."

"One question comes to mind that I get asked very frequently, and it's an interesting question from continuing practicing Catholics when they say, 'Mark, I wonder if my contributions on Sunday are going to help pay the sex abuse claims.' The only money they have is your money," Vath said.