Request for Del. bishop's appearance denied

November 2, 2009 9:17:02 AM PST
The judge presiding over the bankruptcy case of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington denied a request from attorneys for alleged victims of priest sex abuse to order the bishop to appear at a meeting of creditors.

Attorneys for the alleged victims wanted the opportunity to question the Most Rev. W. Francis Malooly at a creditors meeting tentatively scheduled for Dec. 1.

"The goals of the debtor for transparency, for healing, for atoning, if you will, for what happened to these people requires that this person show up," James Stang, an attorney for abuse victims, said at Monday's hearing.

The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month after settlement negotiations failed with about a dozen alleged victims, including eight plaintiffs whose cases were scheduled for trial. More than 100 other alleged victims are pursuing compensation through dispute resolution instead of trials, creating a potential liability that the diocese said it could not afford, particularly given the demands by the plaintiffs in cases set for trial.

The diocese has designated its vicar general of administration, the Rev. Monsignor Thomas Cini, as the point man in the bankruptcy case.

"He, by far, has the most institutional knowledge of this diocese," diocese attorney Robert Brady said of Cini, who has served in the diocese since 1958 and has been vicar of administration since 1977.

The motion to force Malooly to appear seemed to be more designed to get publicity than to get useful information, Brady added.

Judge Christopher Sontchi agreed with the diocese that it made more sense to have Cini appear at the meeting, given that Malooly has been with the diocese for only about a year.

Sontchi said there was no evidence or allegation of wrongdoing that would prompt the court to override the debtor's right to designate Cini to answer creditors' questions, but he indicated that the creditors could appeal to him later if Cini cannot answer questions to their satisfaction.

In other developments, attorneys said the diocese has reached a settlement with James Sheehan, an alleged abuse victim who is gravely ill and whose attorneys asked Sontchi to allow his lawsuit against the diocese to proceed in state court, even though a bankruptcy filing automatically halts litigation against a debtor.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but the diocese needs Sontchi's permission to make a payment to Sheehan. In the meantime, his lawsuit against the religious order that employed his alleged abuser is set to begin Nov. 16.

At the diocese's request, Sontchi adjourned Monday's hearing for about 30 minutes to discuss the Sheehan settlement with attorneys, as well as the diocese's request for a restraining order to prevent plaintiffs from pursuing their lawsuits against parishes and other co-defendants as long as the diocese is still in bankruptcy.

Cini was the first witness called in what was expected to be a lengthy evidentiary hearing regarding the diocese's motion for a restraining order.

On a related issue, Sontchi agreed to enter an order modifying the automatic halt to litigation to allow depositions in state court to proceed in a handful of cases involving alleged abuse victims who are extremely ill or dying.

Brady said the medical records of some of the people call into question whether exceptions should be made for them. Sontchi said he would leave it to the diocese and attorneys for alleged victims to agree on a process to take depositions "where appropriate," and that he would step in if necessary.

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