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.”

Complete Article HERE!

In Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, leaders are defending clergymen mired in child abuse scandals

— In deeply Catholic Timor-Leste, high-profile clergymen involved in child sex abuse scandals are supported by some of the country’s most powerful politicians while victims who come forward are labelled as ‘church haters’.

Father Richard Daschbach was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Timorese court after he confessed to sexually abusing many young girls at the orphanage he ran for 30 years in Timor-Leste.

By Kimberly Lambourne

Nobel Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo was once the most powerful figure of the Roman Catholic church in Timor-Leste.

But in 2022, a Dutch newspaper report accused Belo of multiple rapes and sexual assaults on young boys dating back to the time he was a priest in the early 1980s.

In 2002, when the first allegations against him were raised, the Vatican discretely moved Bishop Belo to Mozambique, and then to Portugal, saying he was suffering “physical and mental fatigue”.

Then in 2020, Belo was secretly sanctioned by the Vatican and banned from living in his home country and coming into contact with minors.

Despite the allegations against him, Belo still receives the support of the nation for his role in campaigning for the human rights and self-determination of the Timorese people during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999.

A man wearing a black clerical gown and purple cap (left) embraces Pope John Paul II, who is wearing white.
Timorese spiritual leader and Nobel peace laureate Bishop Carlos Belo (left) meets Pope John Paul II in his summer residence at Castelgandolfo in September 1999.

Belo’s portrait is prominently displayed at the entrance of the Timor-Leste resistance museum — an ever-present reminder of his reputation as a fearless fighter for Timorese independence.

The president of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos Horta, is a long-time friend of Bishop Belo. The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for their advocacy work and were the international faces of the Timorese during the occupation.

Ramos-Horta continues to speak highly of Belo, despite the Vatican exiling Belo from Timor-Leste due to the child sex abuse allegations against him.

“We were surprised, but that’s life, these things happen,” he said in an interview for a documentary first broadcast on European public broadcaster ARTE. “It was very hard for us, for the Timorese people.”

“He represented the church, but also all the people of Timor.”

(left), a bespectacled man with a moustache; (right) a bespectacled clergyman in a bishop's hat
The president of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos Horta, is a long-time friend of Bishop Belo (right). The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for their advocacy work and were the international faces of the Timorese during the occupation.

“That’s a matter for the Vatican, for the Holy See, to decide whether he can return to Timor,” he said. “Yes, of course, people would love to welcome him back here.”

However, he declined to comment on the accusations against Belo.

The documentary makers made several attempts to contact Belo, seeking a response to the allegations raised in the program. He did not reply.

The church and the fight for independence

The topic of child sexual abuse in Timor-Leste is shrouded in a code of silence. The Timorese people revere the Catholic church as an institution that helped and offered them protection in the country’s darkest days.

Located north of Australia, Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony. After declaring independence in 1975, the nation was quickly invaded by Indonesia and for 24 years Timor-Leste endured a violent occupation. It formally became independent in 2002.

More than 150,000 people were killed in the fight for independence — almost a quarter of the country’s population — making it one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century.

During the occupation, priests sheltered and cared for the Timorese independence fighters, with the church loyal supporters of the resistance.

Today Timor-Leste is considered the second most Catholic country in the world, behind only the Vatican, with 97 per cent of the population practicing Catholicism.

This deep connection between the church and the fight for Timorese independence has fostered an environment where it’s difficult for victims to speak up as to speak ill of the church in Timor-Leste means to undermine the pain the nation has suffered through for its sovereignty.

Victims who come forward are often labelled as church haters and face being ostracised from their community.

A bespectacled older man wearing a medical face mask hugs two young women whose faces are blurred
In 2021, American missionary Richard Daschbach became the first member of the clergy to be convicted of sexual abuse of minors in Timor-Leste.

American ex-priest jailed for rape

Belo is far from the only priest in the country to have child sexual abuse allegations levelled at them.

It’s alleged that around a dozen other priests are accused of sexual abuse in Timor-Leste.

But prosecutions are rare.

In 2021, a Timorese court sentenced then 84-year-old American missionary Richard Daschbach to 12 years in prison for sexual abuse of children — the first time a member of the clergy has been convicted of such crimes in Timor-Leste.

Three years earlier, Daschbach, who had run an orphanage for 30 years in remote Timor-Leste, admitted to sexually abusing many young girls who were in his care.

In a letter addressed to his superiors, Daschbach wrote: “The victims could be anyone from about 2012 back to 1991, which is a long time.”

He went on to say, “It is impossible for me to remember even the faces of many of them, let alone the names — who the victims are I haven’t the faintest idea.”

After his confession, the Vatican expelled Daschbach from the church.

Two older men sitting on a couch. The man on the right is wearing a floral blue shirt and has his right arm around the shoulder of the man on the left, who is pointing his index finger
Convicted child sex offender Father Richard Daschbach (left) and Timor-Leste’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão (right).

Daschbach, like Belo, supported the Timor-Leste rebels in their 24-year battle for independence, giving him status as a respected war hero and saviour of children.

Despite the evidence, criminal conviction and Daschbach’s own confessions, many Timorese still defend his honour. Among them is the country’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmão.

Since Daschbach’s imprisonment, Gusmão has visited the priest twice for birthday celebrations.

Speaking to a reporter, Gusmão confirmed that he believes Daschbach doesn’t belong in prison and will continue “every, every, every year” to bring him cake for his birthday.

In response to the news that the prime minister visited the convicted child sex offender in prison, Gusmão’s three sons, who now live in Melbourne, wrote handwritten letters to Daschbach’s victims apologising for their father’s actions.

One wrote: “When I heard that my father had visited the perpetrator ex-priest RD, I felt sad and angry. I apologise if my father’s actions caused you distress.”

Gusmão has said the release of Daschbach will be one of his priorities while in office.

Daschbach also receives avid support from Martinho Gusmao, a former priest and presidential candidate in 2022 elections.

“I think this case must be … cancelled … his name must be restored,” he said about Daschbach’s sentencing.

“You cannot. Just because you hate the Catholic church in Timor-Leste, you cannot do that.”

A congregation inside a Catholic church during mass
Timor-Leste is considered the second most Catholic country in the world, behind only the Vatican, with 97 per cent of the population practicing Catholicism.

The culture of silence

Josh Trinidad, a Timorese anthropologist and specialist in sexual violence, says Timor-Leste generally doesn’t see paedophilia as a big issue.

“A lot of people still don’t understand the issue of paedophilia [in Timor-Leste],” he said.

“It’s not like in the West, in Australia or in the UK, if you are a paedophile is, you know, really bad.”

As the victims of child sexual abuse crimes speak up, it is revealing a much larger cultural problem about the way sex abuse is perceived in Timorese society.

Many locals fear any reckoning to address the abuse will be deeply traumatic to the young nation that has fought relentlessly for its freedom.

Given the innate reluctance to even talk about child sexual abuse and the institutional power abusers and their supporters hold in Timor-Leste, it makes it more difficult for victims to tell their stories and be believed.

Complete Article HERE!

These Clergy Abuse Survivors Had a Chance to Find Justice.

— Then Their Diocese Filed for Bankruptcy.

Baltimore Catholic Archbishop William Lori greets parishioners after delivering Sunday Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in July 2019, in Randallstown, Md.

As more states extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, churches are finding a legal workaround.

BY

When Teresa Lancaster was a teenager in the 1970s, she was raped by a chaplain at her Catholic high school in Baltimore. But when she and another survivor, Jean Wehner, sued the chaplain and the diocese decades later, the court rejected their case, saying too much time had passed under Maryland law. Lancaster, by then in her mid-40s, enrolled in law school with one goal: to lift the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits.

“It was crushing,” she said about losing the lawsuit. “I had to pick myself up and decide what I was going to do. I knew if I became a lawyer, people would have to listen to me, and I could gain some respect back.”

Lancaster went on to become an attorney for victims of sexual abuse, and she eventually testified in front of the Maryland state legislature in favor of statute of limitations reform. Last April, Lancaster finally saw her goal achieved when Governor Wes Moore signed the Child Victims Act into law. It was one of 26 similar laws passed in the wake of the MeToo movement and high-profile sexual assault scandals involving the Boy Scouts and USA Gymnastics. 

But even in victory, Lancaster was not fully at ease. “I told everybody, this is a win,” she said. “But I was ready for them to attack back.”

And they did. In September, just two days before the law went into effect, the Archdiocese of Baltimore filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy—meaning all lawsuits against the Archdiocese would be paused, and any sexual abuse claims against a church would have to go through the bankruptcy court. Now, Lancaster is working hard to finish filing claims for herself and 20 clients by a court-imposed May 31 deadline, or else risk losing their one shot to find justice.

In recent years, bankruptcy has become increasingly popular among Catholic dioceses as a tool to avoid bad press and prevent future litigation. After an organization files for bankruptcy, all civil litigation against it stops. Instead, the bankruptcy court sets a deadline for victims or other creditors to submit a claim against the organization. That deadline essentially overrides any statute of limitations reform passed by the state legislature—if victims don’t meet it, they likely can’t sue in the future. Then, claims are resolved with a batch settlement—which makes bankruptcy an appealing option to dioceses, because it allows them to settle hundreds of lawsuits via a single process rather than litigating them individually. In a statement, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori claimed that bankruptcy would “best allow the Archdiocese both to equitably compensate victim-survivors of child sexual abuse and ensure the local Church can continue its mission and ministries.”

But victims like Lancaster are skeptical. Many survivors and advocates argue that the bankruptcy process protects churches’ interests at the expense of victims. Unlike a civil trial, bankruptcy has no discovery process that would allow further information about abusers’ crimes to come to light—which means victims may be left with lingering questions about how much their churches knew about their abuse, or whether other people were victimized. In addition, because bankruptcy sets a deadline for claims, it can force victims to come forward before they’re ready, or risk losing their pathway to justice forever. Since many victims of childhood sexual abuse often don’t disclose their abuse for decades, the public may never know the full extent of clerical abuse.

“Survivors have a right to say, ‘This happened to me,’” said Wehner, who is also a claimant in the Baltimore bankruptcy case. “Because after this is done, we don’t get to do that anymore. What this bankruptcy does is shortens our time. It puts a pressure on us.”

Bankruptcy has long been common as a tool for corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma to respond to mass lawsuits. According to Marie Reilly, a Penn State law professor and bankruptcy expert, the Archdiocese of Portland was the first diocese to use this legal maneuver back in 2004, when it declared bankruptcy amid child sexual abuse claims. Since then, Reilly said, 35 other dioceses have filed for bankruptcy, with 16 of those cases coming in the past four years.

Reilly attributes the recent acceleration in the trend to the wave of legislation like Maryland’s Child Victims Act. Thirteen of the recent bankruptcies have been concentrated in states like New York and California, which recently passed look-back windows—periods of time in which victims can bring forth child sexual abuse claims previously blocked by the statute of limitations.

There are some potential solutions to the problem. In April, Representative Deborah Ross (D-NC) introduced legislation to amend bankruptcy proceedings in cases of child sex abuse. The bill would give victims the opportunity to submit impact statements and mandate a discovery hearing where information about individual cases and institutional negligence could come to light. It would also require an independent forensic accountant to examine the bankrupt organization’s estate, along with the holdings of any third parties involved in the proceedings, to ensure victims receive a settlement commensurate with the organization’s worth.

Lancaster supports the bill, though she acknowledges that no amount of money will heal the emotional scars of abuse. Ideally, she’d like to see prosecutions of attackers and a memorial for survivors. But she knows that, at the moment, money is the most important tool survivors have at their disposal to hold the diocese to account. “That is the only thing that the church as a corporation is going to understand,” she said. “If we hit them hard enough, maybe they’ll really do something about the abuse situation.”

When I spoke to Lancaster this spring, she was simultaneously counseling her clients on how to file their claims—which often means recounting abuse in excruciating detail—while working on her own claim. It’s a frustrating, emotionally draining process. But Lancaster’s life has been a lesson in moving forward, even at high emotional cost. “It’s upsetting, but I pushed that into the back so that I can be a fighter in the front, you know?” she said.

After the Child Victims Act passed and victims were looking for representation, another lawyer cautioned Lancaster against disclosing her abuse to her clients because, as Lancaster recalled, “They can’t see a weak person standing before them to fight for them.” She disagreed.

“One of the reasons people will come and talk to me is because they know I’ve been there,” she told me. “I say, ‘I’m a survivor, and I understand.’”

Complete Article HERE!

New Mexico priest dies by suicide amid child sex abuse investigation

Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

By Daniel Payne

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, said last week that a former priest charged in a child sex abuse case ended his own life ahead of a court hearing on the matter.

The archdiocese said in a press release that Daniel Balizan had “taken his life” ahead of “a hearing in a child sexual abuse case.” Local media reported that Balizan’s body was found on Friday morning in Springer, New Mexico.

Balizan’s “tragic decision to end his life underscores the far-reaching and devastating consequences of the crime of child abuse — affecting victims, their loved ones, and even perpetrators themselves,” the archdiocese said in its Friday statement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico announced Balizan’s indictment in June of last year. He was accused of coercing and enticing a child under the age of 18 to engage in sexual activity. The alleged abuse reportedly occurred between 2012 and 2022.

The prosecutor’s office said last year that Balizan “allegedly used text messages to coerce and entice a minor victim … to engage in sexual activity with him.”

The archdiocese said after his arrest last year that upon receiving the allegations in 2022 it “promptly reported” them to the authorities, “leading to Balizan’s immediate removal as the pastor of Santa Maria de la Paz in Santa Fe.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys had announced at the beginning of May that Balizan had agreed to a plea deal in the case. Balizan requested “that he be permitted to remain out of custody pending the sentencing hearing,” the plea filing said.

The 61-year-old was facing a minimum of 10 years in prison on the charges.

Balizan was ordained in 1989 and had served at eight parishes in the Santa Fe Archdiocese before his arrest.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the former priest had been released to the custody of his brother after being arrested.

In the intervening months Balizan had “done bookkeeping, housekeeping, and groundskeeping work at the small family hotel,” his lawyer had said in a filing earlier this month.

The former priest “also has been visiting and assisting his 89-year-old mother three days a week,” his attorney said.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe said in its Friday statement that it “reaffirm[ed] its zero tolerance and unwavering dedication to ensuring the safety and well-being of its community members, especially the vulnerable.”

Complete Article HERE!

Dallas bishop addresses allegations of sexual misconduct by priest

Bishop Edward Burns

By Sarah Bahari

The head of Dallas’ Catholic diocese called allegations of sexual misconduct against a priest painful and said the church is committed to protecting its children and vulnerable members.

In a video published Wednesday to the diocese’s website, Bishop Edward Burns said the diocese removed the priest from public ministry within one hour of learning of the allegations and is working with law enforcement.

“This is a difficult time. It is painful to watch the news about this alleged abuse,” Burns said. “It is embarrassing, but it is necessary. This is what zero tolerance looks like.”

The priest, 34-year-old Ricardo Reyes Mata, was arrested Monday in Garland on two counts of indecency with a child. A 10-year-old girl told her Catholic school teacher that while visiting her family’s home in Garland in late April, the priest reached under her shirt and fondled her breasts, according to a police affidavit. At the time, she said, the rest of her family was outside.

The girl’s teacher immediately notified Child Protective Services, Burns said. A spokesperson for CPS did not respond to an email or phone call Thursday.

On May 2, the diocese removed Reyes Mata, who is no longer permitted to wear clerical attire in public, Burns said, then notified Garland police.

Detectives interviewed the girl and one of her siblings at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, and the girl described the misconduct taking place April 5, according to the affidavit.

“Our care and concern goes out to young girl who brought this information forth, and we are proud of her courage,” Burns said in the video.

Reyes Mata, who lives in Dallas, was booked this week into the Garland Detention Center with bonds set at $75,000 and $100,000.

The priest was appointed parochial vicar of the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Dallas in 2023, according to the cathedral’s website. Before that, Reyes Mata served as parochial vicar of St. Jude Parish in Allen. He also served as chaplain for Bishop Dunne High School in Dallas.

Allegations of sexual misconduct by priests have rocked the Catholic church in recent years and decades. In 2019, 15 Texas dioceses named nearly 300 priests credibly accused of child sex abuse spanning eight decades. Of those, 31 clergy members came from the Dallas diocese.

“As we look back at the church’s history,” Burns said in 2019, “the failure to protect our most vulnerable from abuse and hold accountable those who preyed on them fills me with both shame and sorrow.”

But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, urged the diocese to do more to identify any additional victims.

“This disturbing news from Texas reaffirms that clergy sexual abuse is still very much a thing of the present,” the advocacy organization said in a statement. “It can take victims decades to acknowledge their abuse and find the courage to come forward. However, the fact that one survivor has already been identified, may help to shorten this process.”

Detectives ask that anyone with information regarding this investigation or other such incidents, call Garland police at 972-485-4840.

Complete Article HERE!