Last chance ahead for clergy abuse survivors to file claims against Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese

The North Coast diocese emerged early on as a hot spot in the nationwide clergy abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.|

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Survivors of clergy abuse involving the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Diocese have one final chance this fall to come forward to seek a settlement from the church.

A federal bankruptcy judge has set an Oct. 20 deadline for all claims against the embattled diocese — both from those who have lodged lawsuits against the church already and from those who have yet to take legal action but don’t want to miss a shot at taking part in a settlement.

Proof Claim Order.pdf

There are no guarantees new claims will be approved. In fact, those just now making sex abuse allegations for the first time can count on robust challenges from church attorneys and insurers.

That’s particularly true for those who are over age 40 and for whom the state Legislature opened a special three-year waiver of the statute of limitations that closed eight months ago at the end of 2022.

But this is the last chance for survivors to try to resolve their claims with the church through the courts.

Once the bankruptcy court finalizes the diocese’s case and all settlements with clergy abuse survivors and other creditors, the church’s liability for any existing claims is extinguished, except in the most extreme cases.

That’s why Oct. 20 is called a “bar date.” After that, claims that arose before the bankruptcy are barred.

“If you ever thought about doing something, this is your last, best chance to pursue justice,” said Sacramento attorney Joseph George Jr., who represents scores of survivors around the state.

The diocese is in the process now of notifying any known or potential claimants, running newspaper ads, sending packets of forms to attorneys who handle survivor cases, putting notices in Catholic publications and alerting organizations like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

NOTICE OF DEADLINE FOR FILING CLAIMS.pdf

“Part of our process is to do our best to put the word out to potential Survivors that there is time to file a claim until Oct. 20 of this year,” Chris Lyford, director of communications for the Santa Rosa Diocese, wrote to SNAP officers last week.

The North Coast diocese emerged early on as a hot spot in the nationwide clergy abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.

The diocese has paid out at least $35 million in settlements for clergy abuse cases since the 1990s, more than half of it covered by insurance, Bishop Robert Vasa has said.

At least a third of it was paid out in settlements resulting from a one-year waiver of the statute of limitations in 2003, Vasa said.

Until recently, state law allowed child sex assault survivors to sue the church only until age 26. The cap was raised to 40 under 2019 legislation that also opened the three-year look-back window for those over age 40, providing older victims one last chance to file a civil suit.

The result was thousands of new cases around the state, at least 226 of them involving the Santa Rosa Diocese, according to East Bay attorney Rick Simons. He is liaison counsel for all the Northern California clergy cases being coordinated through Alameda County Superior Court.

Vasa confirmed in March the diocese would seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the Northern District of California given “the overwhelming number of sexual abuse lawsuits” it faced.

The move put a halt to all 220-plus cases involving the diocese from the recent look-back window. Instead, those plaintiffs must transfer their claims from civil court by filing “proofs of claim” in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The opportunity to file proofs of claim also is available to non-litigants, though those claims will be considered separately when the time comes to assess how the church’s available assets will be distributed to survivors and other creditors.

The Santa Rosa Diocese is one of at least 34 U.S. Catholic organizations to have filed for bankruptcy so far, including the Oakland Diocese, which sought bankruptcy in May.

The San Francisco Archdiocese recently announced its intention to follow suit, perhaps as early as next week.

The San Diego Diocese is expected to file in November.

Combined, the four dioceses had some 1,500 civil cases against them.

In the case of Santa Rosa, Vasa said bankruptcy was the only way the multitude of cases could be fairly and equitably settled.

But plaintiffs’ lawyers including Simons believe the federal bankruptcy path spares church officials from revealing all they know through depositions and disclosures — an assertion the diocese disputes, saying everything it has already has been turned over.

Attorneys for survivors are also extremely critical of the diocese’s recent practice of separately incorporating church parishes and other entities — a move they say is an effort to shield assets from inclusion in the diocese’s estate.

“It sucks that we can’t present these cases to a jury and to society, and that they’re going to get out of future liability and at least try to walk away with a lot of assets that they’ve been hiding in preparation for the bankruptcy,” Simons said.

George similarly decried “the path of destruction that years and years of Santa Rosa bishops put these kids through, decision after decision,” resulting now in a scramble for finite settlement assets.

“Just a long way from an honest, authentic, honorable response,” George said.

The process for proofs of claims is outlined in detail in court records, including how many times and in which 10 newspapers legal notices must run.

Under the order signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Charles Novak, claimants must file a proof of claim form providing basic information about their claim. They also are encouraged to complete a “confidential survivor supplement,” with additional detail about alleged abuse, their alleged abuser(s) and the personal impacts.

Both documents will remain outside the public record of the case, though contents can be shared with the diocese, its representatives, and other parties involved in negotiating the settlement for survivors. All have been bound to keep such information confidential, court records say.

Claimants represented by attorneys should complete the forms with their assistance.

Proof Of Claim forms.pdf

In recognition of the fact that some survivors may be unaware of their abuse or may be so geographically or otherwise out-of-touch that they miss word of the bar date, the bankruptcy case will likely include a small pot of money from which those individuals might be paid in the future, though only in the most extreme cases, lawyers said.

“It is likely there will be people who inadvertently lose their right to bring a claim, but part of the thinking is that the number of those people is very small,” Simons said. “The diocese has the obligation under the order to fulfill the agreed upon plan to reach out to as many people as possible, but you don’t have to get on Fox News or MSNBC to announce it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Puede ver este artículo en español aquí.

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