Archdiocese of Baltimore Files for Bankruptcy to Evade Sexual Abuse Cases

This bankruptcy filing removes the opportunity for survivors to have their day in civil court to hold the church legally accountable, and limits the payout for each victim.

A wooden cross reads ‘Zero Tolerance’ with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background during a protest of activists of Ending Child Abuse (ECA) against pedophilia within the Catholic Church, on on Sept. 27, 2023, ahead of Papal Synod— a religious assembly of bishops from all over the world who gather in Rome to discuss issues vital to the Roman Catholic Church and act as an advisory body to the pope. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images)

The archdiocese of Baltimore filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 29 to preempt child sexual abuse lawsuits which were expected to be filed once a new Maryland law removing the statute of limitations took effect on Oct. 1. This strategic move means that all claims against the archdiocese must be made as part of bankruptcy proceedings, effectively eliminating the opportunity for survivors to tell their stories in civil court, precluding legal accountability and insulating the archdiocese from scrutiny of its past mistakes.

Maryland lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act of 2023, removing the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases which, under previous law, needed to be filed by the time the survivor turned 38. The legislation also caps liability at $890,000 per claim for public entities and increases the non-economic damage limit to $1.5 million and removes the cap for economic damages, including the cost of medical treatment or therapy, for individual claims against private institutions, such as the archdiocese.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and the chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and championed by Charles County Delegate C.T. Wilson, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who self-published a memoir about his experiences.

Gov. Wes Moore signed the new law in April, fulfilling one of the recommendations set forth in the Maryland attorney general’s report into child sexual abuse in the archdiocese, a redacted version of which also was publicly released in April. The report revealed decades of abuse of over 600 children by 156 Catholic clergy and others, and outlines the church leadership’s efforts to cover up the abuse. The report was the culmination of four years of investigation, initiated by the former Maryland attorney general in September 2018. 

A catalyst for the investigation was the 2017 release of The Keepers –– a seven-episode miniseries investigating the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik, a nun at a Baltimore high school who suspected a priest, Joseph Maskell, of sexually abusing students. Two of Cesnik’s former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, investigated Cesnik’s murder and discovered potential collusion between the archdiocese, the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office to conceal the abuse. 

After the passage of the new law, attorneys for sexual abuse victims announced their intention to bring multiple lawsuits against the archdiocese, the oldest Catholic diocese in the United States, as well as against parishes, schools and other entities related to the archdiocese. One attorney, Ben Crump, best known for representing victims of police brutality, held a news conference to detail the cases, with several potential plaintiffs sharing their stories.  

The bankruptcy filing now prevents these cases from being heard in civil court, allowing the archdiocese to evade the impact of the new law by moving any accounting for childhood sex abuse cases into the bankruptcy court which will establish a separate mechanism for relief. All potential plaintiffs will have to identify themselves during the initial stages of the bankruptcy proceedings, estimated to be about four months, and will be provided a portion of the trust fund the bankruptcy court establishes for survivors—there will be no other path for compensation and no future claims for past abuse can be brought after the deadline established by the bankruptcy judge in the case.

This process removes any opportunity for survivors to tell their stories and have their day in civil court to hold the church legally accountable, and limits the payout for each victim. It also is a cynical attempt to keep the facts from coming to light, as it halts any exchange of information between potential plaintiffs and the church, insulating the church from discovery of incriminating evidence.

Over the last few years, organizations and companies have increasingly attempted to exploit federal bankruptcy laws to avoid accountability.

In announcing the bankruptcy filing, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori claimed that the bankruptcy proceeding would “equitably compensate” victims, hoping they would “find some peace in the light that has been shone on the Church’s sinful past, as well as solace through the pastoral care and financial compensation.”

But the new scheme appears more about the church protecting its assets, limiting financial settlements, and stopping civil lawsuits which would air unsavory information about decades of child sexual abuse and the church’s complicity. 

Becky Ianni of the SNAP National Board, talks publicly about about her abuse as a child by a Catholic priest and the need for transparency in the Catholic Church, as bishops hold their conference in the city Nov. 13, 2018, in Baltimore. (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

David Lorenz, Maryland state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the move “shows a level of moral bankruptcy” on the part of the church.

Victims protested outside the U.S. District Court hearing the bankruptcy case and many have pledged to maintain their fight against the persistent culture of silence around the sex crimes committed by church leaders and to continue to seek justice, including against Catholic schools and individual parishes which are not protected by the bankruptcy filing.

A larger question is whether bankruptcy court should be a safe haven for wrongdoers to avoid legal accountability for their actions. The issue will be taken up this term by the Supreme Court in a case brought by the U.S. Trustee, the Justice Department’s bankruptcy watchdog, challenging immunity for the Sackler family in the bankruptcy settlement for Purdue Pharma, the Sackler-owned company implicated in the opioid epidemic.

But it is unclear if even a successful Supreme Court challenge will impact current cases, including the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings, resulting in hundreds of sexual abuse victims being denied their day in civil court.

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.