Diocese of Fresno files for bankruptcy as it faces sexual abuse claims

By Ryan Foley

Another Catholic diocese in California has filed for bankruptcy as it seeks to adjudicate several claims of sexual abuse committed at the hands of clergy members.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced in a statement Tuesday that “the Diocese will file a petition for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy with the United States Bankruptcy Court in 2024.”

Bishop Joseph Brennan noted in an open letter to parishioners that a California state law “opened a three-year window for individuals to bring forward otherwise barred or expired claims for sexual abuse suffered as a child.”

“Since the closing of the filing window on December 31, 2022, we have been informed of 154 cases filed against our Diocese,” he stated.

Brennan outlined his two “definitive goals” of how to “continue to atone for the sin of clergy abuse” as “to make sure we are handling claims of abuse with equitable compassion and resolving those claims as fairly as possible” as well as “to ensure the continuation of ministry within our Diocese.”

Brennan cited a declaration of bankruptcy, which he expects to file in August, as a way to “address the substantial number of claims brought forth by victims collectively” that “will allow us to address those claims honestly, compassionately, and equitably.”

“Requesting a court-supervised reorganization is the only path that allows us to meet the goals stated above,” he said.

“The reorganization ensures all victims are compensated fairly and funds are not depleted by the first few cases addressed,” he added. “The process also allows the operation of our schools, parishes, and organizations to continue uninterrupted, since the only entity filing for bankruptcy protection is the corporate sole, known legally as The Roman Catholic Bishop of Fresno.”

Brennan insisted that “Catholic Charities and the Fresno Diocese Education Corporation, which operates the schools are separate legal or ecclesial entities and will not be filing for bankruptcy protection.”

A frequently-asked-questions page elaborating on the impacts of the bankruptcy declaration indicates that “it will pay for the claims from funds that are available to be used for such purposes,” adding “there is some insurance to cover abuse that occurred in past decades.”

The Diocese of Fresno is not the first diocese in California to file for bankruptcy amid a wave of sexual misconduct allegations directed at priests.

Earlier this year, the Diocese of Sacramento filed for bankruptcy as it seeks to resolve an even larger number of claims of sexual abuse committed by clergy.

The California state law that led to an increased volume of sexual assault allegations directed at clergy, Assembly Bill 118, declares: “In an action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual assault, the time for commencement of the action shall be within 22 years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority or within five years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by the sexual assault, whichever period expires later.”

The legislation, passed in 2019, allows “action for liability against any person or entity who owed a duty of care to the plaintiff if a wrongful or negligent act by that person or entity was a legal cause of the childhood sexual assault that resulted in the injury to the plaintiff.”

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