Claims are pouring in ahead of a Wednesday deadline for child sexual abuse victims to seek damages from the Diocese of Duluth.
As of Monday, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court was reporting that 112 confidential claims had been turned over to attorneys representing the diocese and the group of trustees advocating for its creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings.
As expected, that number was a significant jump from the 46 claims reported just a month ago, with many people apparently making the last-minute decision to file or lose their legal rights to seek damages in decades-old abuse cases.
"It'll be right up until the end," said Mike Finnegan, an attorney representing dozens of the claimants through St. Paul-based Jeff Anderson and Associates. "I think there's a lot of people out there that are trying to decide right now what to do and are struggling with it."
The Wednesday deadline was set by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel and matches the date imposed by the state Legislature in the Minnesota Child Victims Act. The legislation opened a three-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitation.
A $4.9 million verdict handed down against the Duluth diocese by a St. Paul jury in November - the first case in the state to go to trial under the Child Victims Act - prompted the diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis saw a similar flurry of filings ahead of a court-imposed deadline in its own bankruptcy last summer. More than 400 people filed sexual abuse claims, with 128 of them coming on the final day, according to news reports.
The bankruptcy process allows victims to file claims without having their names or personal information made public. The diocese was required to reach out to potential victims and provide notice through regional and national media and other means.
Diocese officials have said in numerous interviews and statements that the bankruptcy process was a necessity in wake of the sizeable verdict to ensure continued operation of essential church services and "assure some measure of justice for all the victims."
"We've tried to put victims first and seek the truth with transparency and do things in the right way," the Rev. James Bissonette, vicar general of the diocese, previously told the News Tribune. "Going forward now, we're going to make sure victims share in a measure of justice."
A diocese official testified at a February hearing that the organization maintained net assets of a little more than $5 million and total liabilities of just over $12 million. The diocese operates with an annual budget of about $3.3 million.
Attorneys for the diocese and Anderson and Associates mutually agreed to enter mediation, with talks expected to begin next month. Gregg Zive, a bankruptcy judge in Arizona with experience in a number of diocesan and municipal bankruptcy cases, will handle the talks.
The Duluth diocese was the 15th diocese or religious order in the United States to file for bankruptcy; all previous cases have resulted in settlements.