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Santa Rosa diocese files for bankruptcy after "staggering" number of sex abuse claims
The California diocese says bankruptcy is the only option because "these cases are too numerous to settle individually"
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The Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa in California is declaring for bankruptcy today due to a “staggering” number of sexual abuse cases against Church leaders.
In 2019, the California legislature passed a bill opening up a three-year window for adults to file lawsuits relating to childhood sexual abuse if, in the past, they had been locked out from doing so due to existing statutes of limitations. The bill allowed people as old as 40 to file sexual abuse cases and allowed people older than that to file similar lawsuits up to five years after they “discovered that the psychological injury or illness… was caused by sexual assault” since it’s not always obvious at the time of the incident(s).
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez argued that the law was unconstitutional. He thankfully lost that argument.
That window was open from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2022, and the Diocese of Santa Rosa knew it was in trouble. This past December, just as the window was closing, the bishop announced that it was almost certain the diocese wouldn’t survive the fallout:
In a statement first reported by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Bishop Robert Vasa described bankruptcy as the “inevitable result of an insurmountable number of claims” — about 130, dating back to its founding in 1962.
Before you celebrate, declaring bankruptcy had an upside for the diocese. As critics noted, the move would let Catholic leaders “postpone or avoid depositions and document discovery in lawsuits that might uncover past misdeeds.” It also limited how much money would eventually go to victims. The diocese might shut down, but also closing were all the possible opportunities to seek justice.
Closing the diocese wouldn’t affect all the parishes and schools it oversees, either, since those were separate entities. (The diocese began separating itself from those groups years ago, perhaps seeing bankruptcy as an inevitable conclusion.) And if the diocese ever resurrects itself after bankruptcy, it would be free from the burdens of the harm they caused in the past.
By declaring bankruptcy, “Santa Rosa church officials can refuse to accept responsibility for abuse and cover-ups that occurred while they were in charge,” SNAP, or Survivors of those Abused by Priests, said in a news release. “Even worse, bankruptcy will cut off anyone who doesn’t come forward during this process.”
And now the result everyone saw coming has finally become a reality. On Friday, the diocese announced it would file for bankruptcy today.
… As we noted in December, this decision was made necessary due to the number of child sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the Diocese over the course of the past three years. These cases are too numerous to settle individually and so they have accumulated until the closing of the three-year window. Now that the window is closed, we have received notice of at least 160 claims and we have information that perhaps more than 200 claims have been filed in total against the Diocese.
In fact, one attorney for the plaintiffs says there are 222 claims.
Vasa pointed out that they faced similar circumstances two decades ago, with fewer lawsuits, and had to pay out $12 million (“with an additional $19 million coming from insurance”). Since that time, they had to dole out another $4 million for individual settlements. To pay those amounts, they had to sell off property and borrow money. Vasa says there’s no more property to sell, very little insurance coverage available, and over 160 cases that are brand new. They have nothing left to give.
Whether or not that last bit is accurate is debatable. The Catholic Church is never lacking for resources and bankruptcy is actually a lifeline of sorts for the diocese.
But for now, the next few years will involve all parties involved to figure out what the diocese can afford to give, which claims have merit, and how much plaintiffs should receive.
The Press Democrat puts this in perspective:
At least 32 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States and its territories have sought bankruptcy protection since 2004, primarily stemming from a sex abuse scandal that erupted publicly after decades in which church leaders secretly reassigned accused priests or referred them for therapeutic treatment, and privately resolved allegations.
They include the Stockton Diocese, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 with a plan to settle child sex abuse cases with 27 survivors for $15 million.
Two other California bishops, in San Diego and Sacramento, have announced recently they may seek bankruptcy protection in the face of hundreds of claims filed during the look-back window that closed on New Year’s Eve. More than 400 claims have been filed against the San Diego Diocese and more than 200 cases against the Sacramento Diocese, according to diocesan communications.
It’s easy to become numb from these numbers, but they represent a staggering amount of child abuse that was ignored and/or perpetuated by Catholic Church leaders over the course of several decades. No amount of money will bring back what those victims have lost, but it’s long past time that these dioceses face some kind of accountability for the pain they’ve inflicted upon the world.
Declaring bankruptcy, in many ways, is letting them off easy. No one’s going to jail. The churches and Catholic schools can still exist when all this is over, unless a lawsuit goes after those institutions specifically. This is a cop-out. But it’s also more accountability than the victims would’ve seen if Church leaders got their way. They did everything in their power to block the look-back window from becoming law and now they’re doing everything they can to limit the damage on themselves.
The victims will receive at least some kind of justice all because a secular government took the moral high road despite plenty of religious opposition.