The Catholic Church in Guam has announced plans to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, in an attempt to cope with the scores of sexual abuse claims against clergy in the U.S. territory. Archbishop Michael Byrnes said the Archdiocese of Agana settled on the move as the most expedient way to support the alleged victims.
"Over the last two years, we've done our best. We've strengthened our policies for a safe environment. We've educated over 2,000 people in the practices of safe environment protection of minors. We've made a lot of great strides," Byrnes said at a news conference Wednesday.
"But our biggest issue is the almost 200 victim survivors of sexual abuse."
Byrnes took over as archbishop on the West Pacific island in 2016, shortly after his predecessor, Anthony Apuron, was suspended under a cloud of suspicion. Apuron has been accused of sexually abusing minors — including his own nephew -- and helping to cover up similar abuses by priests and other Catholic authority figures in Guam. The allegations date back decades.
Earlier this year the Vatican convicted Apuron of unspecified charges, removed him from office and forbade him from returning to the territory, according to the Catholic News Agency. Apuron has flatly denied the allegations; the news service notes that Pope Francis is personally considering his appeal.
Meanwhile, back in Guam, the Catholic Church has been buried under a mound of lawsuits connected to the accusations. Keith Talbot, an attorney for the Church, said the decision to file bankruptcy grew out of information gleaned from mediation sessions beginning in September.
"Bankruptcy does two really good things for us. One is finality for the archdiocese going forward," Talbot explained. As part for the process, a judge will set a deadline — effectively a kind of statute of limitations — for claimants to come forward with any new lawsuits. "The other part is that bankruptcy is the method to deliver the greatest measure of justice to the greatest number of victims."
In this respect, Leander James agrees. He's an attorney with the firm James, Vernon and Weeks, which is representing nearly a dozen of the alleged victims.
"I think this bankruptcy was necessary to create an avenue toward a final settlement," James told NPR. "It will also provide the archdiocese a road out of this dark jungle it's been in. For years now, they've been trying to find their way out. I think this may provide that path."
When the archdiocese sets down that path, likely officially filing bankruptcy in December or January, it will not be the first to do so. Far from it, in fact.
To this point at least 19 dioceses and religious orders have filed — or announced their intention to file — for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. in efforts to settle sexual abuse claims, according to Catholic watchdog BishopAccountability.org.
Along with lawsuits, the church was hit with a damning Pennsylvania grand jury probe released in August. That 900-page report, which implicated some 300 "predator priests," has inspired state and local officials to launch investigations of their own across the country.
To date, claims of clergy sex abuse have cost the Church more than $3 billion in major settlements and awards doled out to alleged victims.