Tensions rise over Santa Rosa Diocese’s plan to seek bankruptcy protection in face of more than 130 abuse claims
Editor’s note: This story addresses the issue of child sex abuse and could be triggering. Please exercise care. This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.
Scores of survivors of clergy abuse — people who had spent decades trying to escape the grief and trauma of childhood sex assault — have come forward over the past three years after deciding now is finally the time to seek justice.
At least 130 — likely many more, attorneys say — have filed or will file lawsuits against the Santa Rosa Roman Catholic Diocese during a special three-year window that allows adults of any age to file personal injury cases for childhood sex abuse in California. That window closes on New Year’s Eve.
But none of those cases is likely to go to trial.
The diocese announced to the court Nov. 30 that it would seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early next year, a move that will suspend state court proceedings and leave the whole matter in federal bankruptcy court.
In effect, experts and plaintiffs attorneys say, that means the judicial process becomes less about finding the truth in each case and holding those in power to account for decades of horrific abuse and more about assigning dollars and cents.
The priority under Chapter 11 reorganization is the well-being of the church and its ability to carry on while the abused become just more creditors, “fighting for the same dollar” as, say, a roofer or any other vendor, said Professor Marci Hamilton. She is the longtime senior fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and chief executive officer of CHILD USA, a nonprofit think take dedicated to protecting children from abuse.
“The truth-seeking function of filing a lawsuit is sidelined, and the only issue that winds up being part of the discussion is, ‘How much money can we, the debtor, save by filing for bankruptcy?’ ” she said.
Assessing the claims, San Francisco plaintiffs attorney Mary Alexander said, also becomes a function of categorizing and counting different kinds of abuse “rather than actual harm,” and overall seeing “a huge case” turn “into a little tiny settlement.”
It’s also “taking away from their ability to find out what really happened — who at the church was responsible or at the school — and in exchange for a two-to-three-year delay and for far less money,” Alexander said. “And it’s still going to be the insurance companies that are paying.”
Months, likely years, will soon be spent fully assessing church assets and vetting claims to determine how church funds should be divided among the survivors.
Attorney Adrienne Moran, whose Santa Rosa law firm has long represented the Santa Rosa Diocese, said bankruptcy is a way to make sure whoever is first in the door doesn’t take everything and leave nothing for the rest.
“The purpose of filing for the bankruptcy is really to make sure that all of the survivors get a fair and equitable settlement,” Moran said, “and to ensure that Plaintiff No. 1, who might go to trial, doesn’t get all of the reward and then leave nothing for the remainder of the survivors.”
Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa said the diocese really had no choice, given what he said were limited diocesan assets and “the overwhelming number of sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the diocese.”
Bankruptcy additionally would short-circuit the 2019 state legislation that expanded the time for survivors of childhood sexual assault to file civil cases.
Previously, child sex abuse survivors could file suit in California until they turned 26. The 2019 legislation, AB-218, raised the age cap to 40 and opened the three-year window for those 40 and older to file suits for childhood abuse.
But bankruptcy is a federal court proceeding, which supersedes state law, and would foreclose future claims for actions that occurred before the bankruptcy.
That means no one, even those under 40, would ever be able to sue the diocese again for past abuse, attorneys said.
“I’m sure that’s part of the reason they’re going into bankruptcy,” said Rick Simons, an East Bay plaintiffs attorney, who serves as liaison counsel for the Northern California cases generated by the three-year window, all of which are being coordinated through the Alameda County Superior Court.
“One thing the bishop wants to avoid,” said Sacramento attorney Joseph George Jr., “is to get sued two years from now and four years from now and seven years from now. They want to end this.”
The diocese, which runs from Petaluma to the Oregon border and includes 41 parishes and more than 178,000 parishioners, already had paid out more than $33 million in clergy abuse claims over the past three decades, some of it paid through insurance.