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The Archdiocese of Baltimore declares bankruptcy just as new child sex abuse law passes

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Maryland's Child Victims Act went into effect at the beginning of this month. It abolished the statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits and allowed people who may have been abused decades ago to sue their abusers. One of the main defendants was expected to be the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, except, as WYPR's Scott Maucione reports, the organization just declared bankruptcy.

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: Teresa Lancaster (ph) and other survivors of sexual abuse were in shock.

TERESA LANCASTER: I had survivors calling me into the night, hysterical, asking, what went wrong? What happened?

MAUCIONE: After decades, Lancaster was ready for her day in court to tell her story to the public and to demand compensation for her abuse. It was a story she'd already told over and over and over, through decades of testimony, trying to get Maryland's Child Victims Act into law.

LANCASTER: I was there. I testified every year at the Senate hearing and the House.

MAUCIONE: The Child Victims Act abolished the statute of limitations to sue alleged sexual abusers in Maryland and allowed them to file suit for up to $1.5 million. But two days before it went into effect, the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That puts a stop to all civil cases against the church, like Lancaster's, as the court looks at the church's assets and decides how it can go forward financially. It's a tactic many other dioceses and archdioceses across the nation have used. Maryland state Senator and Child Victims Act sponsor Will Smith says filing for bankruptcy is something legislators were unable to prepare for with the law.

WILL SMITH: This calls for kind of really a federal solution because it's - you know, we couldn't change the Chapter 11 bankruptcy law at the state level. And so we knew that that was an option that they would likely pursue. There's nothing, really, we could do in that respect to curtail their activity with respect to them filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

MAUCIONE: The law was crafted to allow people to file civil suits no matter when they decide to report their abuse. But the bankruptcy court may whittle down the time alleged victims have to claim restitution to as little as four months. That's important because, according to recent studies, child sexual abuse survivors often don't come forward until their 50s. That was top of mind for Maryland Delegate C.T. Wilson when he sponsored the law.

CT WILSON: The most important thing was basically giving these individuals, at whatever age they chose to come forward, an opportunity to face their abusers and also because I know they spend many of their waking hours trying to figure out why them and why not somebody else. Why do people not believe them?

MAUCIONE: In April, a report from the Maryland attorney general's office identified more than 600 alleged victims of the Baltimore archdiocese over the last 80 years. However, lawyers representing the victims said they expected more than a thousand people. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori says the bankruptcy filing is the only way to keep the church afloat. The church states its assets are worth about a quarter of a billion dollars. Robert Jenner, managing partner at Jenner Law, which represents some of the victims, says the bankruptcy proceedings slow down the payout process.

ROBERT JENNER: Survivors get evaluated in a certain way, and then payouts occur. That process can take years.

MAUCIONE: That's especially concerning for older victims in their 70s and 80s. The Child Victims Act isn't completely toothless, though. The church may have been the most egregious abuser, but it wasn't the only one. Many alleged victims not affiliated with the church will still be able to bring suit against those who abuse them. But for those seeking compensation from the Catholic Church, the bankruptcy proceedings could go on for months or even years, adding time to the decades some have already waited. For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Maucione