Old sex-abuse claims bankrupt a Bay Area Catholic diocese. Will others follow?

— Bishop cited an “insurmountable number of claims”

A composite photograph of 20 Catholic priests that have been identified by the Oakland Diocese as priests who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors going back to Jan. 13, 1962.


Payouts for childhood sexual abuse claims have taken a financial toll on a host of venerable American institutions that provided youth programs where predators lurked, from the Boy Scouts of America to Penn State, Michigan State and numerous church organizations.

With a three-year window for new claims of decades-old abuse closing at the end of this month, the Diocese of Santa Rosa, one of five Roman Catholic dioceses serving the Bay Area, has announced it will file for bankruptcy protection early next year.

“It is the inevitable result of an insurmountable number of claims,” Bishop Robert F. Vasa wrote in an announcement last Friday that said the diocese is facing more than 130 abuse claims dating back to its establishment in 1962, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s.

The claims are made possible by AB 218, a California law that made it easier to file claims of decades-old sex abuse otherwise barred by the statute of limitations from 2020 through 2022. Attorneys representing the now middle-aged claimants said they expected more than 1,000 fresh lawsuits and that some dioceses would seek bankruptcy protection.

Vasa, whose diocese oversees parishes in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, said Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection will “bring all parties together in one place to resolve difficult claims fairly and finally, with the supervision of the bankruptcy court.” At the same time, he said, it “will provide a way for the Diocese to continue the various charitable ministries in which it is engaged.”

But SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that dioceses across the country have used bankruptcy “to protect secrets, not assets.” Bankruptcy, they said, limits the claimants’ “discovery” process of seeking records and sworn testimony about the handling of reported abuse.

“It is a sad day for transparency and justice,” SNAP said in a statement. While acknowledging the Diocese of Santa Rosa is “one of California’s most impacted dioceses” by abuse claims, SNAP also questioned its insolvency, noting its charitable organization just reported its biggest year in donations.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa had no comment beyond the bishop’s statement.

What impact a bankruptcy might have on worshippers is unclear. Bishop Vasa in his statement said that “the parishes and Catholic schools within our Diocese are separate civil corporations or separate ecclesial entities and should not be parties to this filing.”

But he added that “there are many matters to be discerned by the bankruptcy court and so absolute certainty about the degree of participation by any other entities such as parishes and schools will be determined in the course of the proceedings.”

Whether other dioceses will follow Santa Rosa into bankruptcy court remains unclear. It is not the first California Catholic diocese to do so. The Diocese of Stockton filed for bankruptcy protection in 2014, citing $14 million in legal expenses over sex abuse claims. The Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy protection in 2007 before reaching a nearly $200 million settlement with 144 alleged abuse victims.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid more than $2 billion in legal expenses from the clergy sex abuse scandal that emerged in lawsuits, investigations and news reports back to the 1980s. Claims largely ended after U.S. Catholic churches adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward abusers two decades ago. But lawmakers in California, New York, Arizona and New Jersey recently allowed new claims to be filed by people who said they were abused by priests decades ago. In many cases those priests have since died.

The Bay Area’s other dioceses are the Archdiocese of San Francisco, covering San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties; the Diocese of Oakland, spanning Alameda and Contra Costa counties; the Diocese of San Jose in Santa Clara County; and the Diocese of Sacramento, which includes Solano County.

So far, none have indicated plans to seek bankruptcy protection, though they have not ruled it out.

The Diocese of San Jose said it isn’t considering bankruptcy “at this time.” The Diocese of Oakland said claims are still being processed and “it’s premature . . . to make a determination on future actions.”

The Archdiocese of San Francisco said “litigation-related issues, whether individual or in the aggregate, would be addressed through appropriate legal channels and not through speculation in media outlets.” The Diocese of Sacramento said “no decision or filing has been made.”

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