Guam Catholic Church enters bankruptcy amid sex abuse claims

FILE - This Nov. 7, 2018 file photo shows the residence and office of the Archbishop of Agana in Hagatna, Guam. Guam's Catholic Church has filed for bankruptcy, a move that will allow the archdiocese to avoid trial in dozens of child sexual abuse lawsuits and enter settlement negotiations. Ford Elsaesser, an attorney representing the church, says the Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition was filed Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 with federal court in Guam. The church faces multi-million dollar lawsuits for sexual abuse from about 190 accusers. (AP Photo/Grace Garces Bordallo, file)

HAGATNA, Guam — Guam's Catholic Church filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, a move that will allow the archdiocese to avoid trial in dozens of child sexual abuse lawsuits and enter settlement negotiations.

Ford Elsaesser, an attorney representing the church, said the Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition was filed with federal court in Guam. The church faces multimillion-dollar lawsuits for sexual abuse from about 190 accusers.

Elsaesser couldn't put a figure on the dollar amount the church is hoping to raise for its settlement. But it said its current assets are valued at $22.9 million with liabilities of $45.6 million. The church also plans to sell non-essential real estate and add the proceeds to the settlement fund.

The Chapter 11 reorganization also allows the church to continue its operations, keeping parishes and parochial schools open, Elsaesser said.

This bankruptcy filing will halt current lawsuits and create a deadline for abuse victims to file new claims before the church settles with accusers.

During the reorganization phase, a notice will be given to everyone who may have a claim but has not filed, Elsaesser said. The deadline to file is estimated to take place in May to June. An unclaimed trust fund will also be established for future claimants who did not file within the bankruptcy deadline, he said.

Last November, Archbishop Michael Byrnes announced the church's decision to file for bankruptcy after mediation efforts to try to settle claims failed.

"This path will bring the greatest measure of justice to the greatest number of victims," Byrnes said last year. "That's the heart of what we're doing."

Byrnes said the bankruptcy will provide finality for victim survivors.

The Chapter 11 reorganization also allows the church to continue its operations where parishes and parochial schools will remain open.

When the announcement was made in November, attorney Leander James, who is working with alleged victims in Guam, praised the move.

"We welcome the announcement," James said in a statement. "Bankruptcy provides the only realistic path to settlement of pending and future claims."

Pope Francis named a temporary administrator for Guam in 2016 after Archbishop Anthony Apuron was accused by former altar boys of sexually abusing them when he was a priest. Dozens of cases involving other priests on the island have since come to light.

Earlier last year, the Vatican removed the suspended Apuron from office and ordered him not to return to the Pacific island after convicting him of charges in a Vatican sex abuse trial.

The Vatican didn't say what exactly Apuron had been convicted of, and the sentence was far lighter than those given to high-profile elderly prelates found guilty of molesting minors.

Apuron, 73, has denied the allegations and has not been criminally charged.

Many other churches around the nation have filed for bankruptcy as a means to reaching settlements for sexual abuse lawsuits.

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