Chairing a parish steering committee related to the Diocese of Rochester’s bankruptcy case has been a learning experience for Father Thomas Mull, pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva.
“When we began three years ago, I and others knew very little about bankruptcy. It’s been a learning process as we go,” said Father Mull. “I’ve learned a lot, though I can’t say I wanted to know it.”
The committee comprises four additional pastors; a regional finance director; and two lay parish trustees (see below).
The priests on the committee represent all the pastors, ensuring that parishes have a voice in bankruptcy proceedings, Father Mull said. Yet he noted that church personnel are not versed in bankruptcy law, so they rely heavily upon attorneys to explain legal proceedings “at an 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 in the diocese have been working very hard to reach a settlement that’s just and fair for the survivors,” she observed, acknowledging that delays in the case have been frustrating. “The progress has been much slower than I anticipated.”
Father Mull noted that COVID restrictions slowed the mediation process significantly. “Doing meditation by virtual (means) is a real, real challenge,” he said. “COVID really slowed us down. Once we were able to meet again, it’s been moving along.”
Mediation requires strict confidentiality
Working closely with the committee is bankruptcy attorney Timothy P. Lyster, a Woods Oviatt Gilman partner who represents all diocesan parishes in the bankruptcy proceedings.
Lyster, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes, said the committee assists in the legal representation of parishes with respect to the bankruptcy case, attending various mediation sessions and meetings with individual parishes.
In the 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 negotiations confidential, so they are not able to tell their colleagues much.
“We don’t want people to think that we’re hiding things,” but participants are bound to confidentiality and often cannot predict what will happen next, he said. “Things change from one meeting to the next.”
Confidentiality is essential “to protect survivors and protect the process” by maintaining trust among 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” among mediation participants, he said. “I’ve come really to respect a lot of the lawyers we’ve worked with, not only their patience with us, but also their sincerity in reminding us that our objective is to provide some sort of justice for people who have been wronged. … For me, that has been a healthy thing and a good thing. Sometimes I think … it should be us reminding them of the need for justice and the recognition that that when we sin, we’ve got to make up for that sin.”
Civil cases move ahead
Lyster and litigator William G. Bauer of Woods Oviatt also represent the parishes in approximately 350 civil suits that are beginning to make their way into the state court system.
At the beginning of the bankruptcy process the committee representing abuse survivors agreed to a “standstill agreement” under which survivors refrained from moving forward with the cases. As mediation efforts bogged down, however, the survivors’ committee declined early this spring to renew the agreement, and in a May 23 ruling, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul R. Warren denied the diocese’s request to stay actions against parishes.
Lyster said the majority of parishes confront cases, which now “are being scheduled for initial-status conferences with (state Supreme Court) Justice Deborah Chimes.” The process calls for the parties to confer and agree on a scheduling order for discovery and the cases to proceed, he said.
“These types of cases generally take some time to get to trial,” he said, especially given the large influx of cases and the backlog courts are dealing with as a result of the COVID pandemic.
Global settlement is the goal of bankruptcy process
Nevertheless, he said, “we’re still working toward a consensual resolution … of the abuse claims against parishes through mediation and the bankruptcy case.”
If the parties can reach a global settlement, they will ask the bankruptcy court to enter a “channeling injunction” redirecting survivor claims against parishes to be satisfied out of 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 ongoing exposure through litigation” he said.
Expressing optimism that this objective can be reached “sooner rather than later,” Father Joseph A. Hart, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace and St. Thomas More, Brighton, said a channeling injunction has been a key component of settlements in each of the other U.S. dioceses that have resolved historical abuse claims through bankruptcy, and it remains the hoped-for outcome here.
“The fact that (all parties) are back in mediation says that there are possibilities here, but there still has to be give and take on both sides,” added Father Hart, who was diocesan vicar general from 1998 to 2015.
Father Mull concurred. “I think we have to stay optimistic. It’s a very slow process of give and take, establishing trust with people with whom we deal in conversation back and forth.”
“I tell (parishioners) just to keep praying and to pray that that a just end will come to all of this,” he said.
Parish committee members
- Father Augustine Chumo, Immaculate Conception, Ithaca
- Kevin Foy, parish trustee, Holy Cross, Rochester
- Brett Granville, parish trustee, 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 finance director, Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Tioga counties
- Father Thomas Mull, chair, Our Lady of Peace Parish, Geneva
- Father James Schwartz, St. Joseph and Holy Spirit, Penfield.