Facing more than 130 new claims of child sexual abuse and the prospect of large financial settlements, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa announced Friday it will be filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection shortly after the new year.
The announcement comes amid the state’s three-year “lookback window,” created by a 2019 law enabling Californians to file new lawsuits in civil court based on older child sexual abuse claims that would typically be barred by the statute of limitations. The lookback window closes at the end of the year and attorneys expect a last-minute flurry of new cases to be filed.
“In many ways, this is not a freely chosen decision,” Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa said in a statement posted to the diocese’s website. “It is the inevitable result of an insurmountable number of claims.”
Vasa said the Chapter 11 process will allow the Diocese to handle the abuse claims collectively, rather than one at a time, while allowing the Diocese “to continue the various charitable ministries in which it is engaged.”
The Diocese of Santa Rosa did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s interview request Friday afternoon. The Bishop’s statement said the vast majority of abuse claims stem from the 70’s and 80’s.
Victim advocates and plaintiffs’ attorneys say the announcement doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s a blueprint other Catholic dioceses across the country have followed in the past when hit with lawsuits. “None of the attorneys representing survivors are surprised by this announcement,” said Rick Simons, a Bay Area trial attorney representing clergy abuse plaintiffs.
Simons said we likely won’t know the consequences of the bankruptcy decision until later next year. “The real dispute with the Diocese of Santa Rosa is what assets are available and how they will be distributed to the survivors.
While the announcement didn’t come as a shock, victim advocates still blasted the decision, calling it an attempt to skirt transparency and potentially reduce payouts to victims.
“The misuse of bankruptcy court is a long-established practice for Catholic Church officials,” the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said in a written statement shortly after the Diocese’s announcement.
“Bankruptcy freezes the discovery of plaintiffs suing [the Diocese], limiting the damage of sworn testimony and the obligation of defendants to honestly answer written questions known as ‘interrogatories.’”
San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who has two active sexual abuse cases against the Diocese of Santa Rosa, agreed the bankruptcy route could stifle transparency, saying it would rob alleged victims of their day in court.
“We’re not going to be able to take depositions of people to ask them questions under oath,” Alexander said. “We’re not going to get the documents, the information of what they knew and how they covered up, how they protected and moved these priests around in parishes. That’s not going to come out.”
An NBC Bay Area analysis of the new lawsuits found every Roman Catholic diocese in Northern California is facing new lawsuits. The majority of claims name priests or other church employees who have been accused in the past, but an NBC Bay Area investigation found dozens of priests who worked in the region are being accused of sexual abuse for the first time.
Source: NBC Bay Area