Catholic Church in California grapples with over 3,000 lawsuits alleging abuse

— Advocates have been stunned by the number of cases that surfaced during this revival window

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, headquarters for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, seen in 2013.

By Alejandro Molina

At least a third of the 12 Roman Catholic dioceses in California have either filed for bankruptcy or are contemplating doing so to deal with an influx of lawsuits filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse after a state law opened a three-year window in which cases were exempted from age limits.

More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Church in California under a 2019 state law that also extended the statute of limitations to allow all alleged victims of sexual abuse to sue up to the age of 40.

Advocates have been stunned by the number of cases that surfaced during the window, which closed at the end of December.

So far, two dioceses have declared bankruptcy.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa, which is facing more than 200 lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy in mid-March. In its bankruptcy petition, it claimed assets valued between $10 million and $50 million. It estimated its liabilities in the same dollar range.

The Diocese of Oakland, grappling with about 330 sexual abuse lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy in early May. It claimed assets valued between $100 million and $500 million with estimated liabilities in the same dollar range, according to its bankruptcy petition.

Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, in a letter, said, “worship sites” will close, and the diocese will have to “re-imagine” how other locations are used.

“I ask for your commitment to work with me and our pastors in the upcoming months as we determine how best to address the outcome of the bankruptcy process and how to ‘right-size’ our parishes to serve the faithful and all who come to us seeking Christ’s tender love,” Barber said.

The Diocese of San Diego made the decision earlier this month to file for bankruptcy sometime this fall, said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the diocese.

Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, announced in early February the possibility of bankruptcy as the diocese faces “staggering” legal costs in dealing with some 400 lawsuits alleging priests and others sexually abused children. Most of the alleged abuse cited in the suits took place 50 to 75 years ago, and the earliest claim dates back to 1945.

Most of the diocese’s assets, McElroy said in a letter, were used to settle previous allegations, ending in a $198 million payout in 2007. Eckery has predicted the cost of settling the outstanding cases against the diocese could amount to $550 million.

The dioceses in Stockton, Fresno and San Jose did not answer a query from Religion News Service to learn of their plans to deal with the lawsuits. The Diocese of Orange said that it had not yet finalized the number of pending lawsuits and that it was not considering bankruptcy. Deacon David Ford with the Diocese of Monterey said the diocese prefers “not to make a statement right now,” regarding any potential plans for bankruptcy.

Bishop Jaime Soto, in a statement in late February, said bankruptcy could be an option for the Diocese of Sacramento as it grapples with more than 200 lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse.

“To learn of this staggering number of claims is truly heartbreaking,” Soto wrote. “These claims represent real people whose lives have been damaged by the sins of individuals whom they had been taught to trust.

“… Given the number of claims that have been presented … resolving them may overwhelm the diocese’s finances available to satisfy such claims,” he wrote. “This financial challenge is unlike anything we have faced before.”

Rick Simons, a lawyer serving as the plaintiffs’ liaison for cases in Northern California, says the dioceses are addressing these cases “as they always have, by avoidance.”

Simons said a total of about 1,600 cases have been filed against the Catholic Church in Northern California. These cases — which are being coordinated through Alameda County Superior Court — span dioceses in Fresno, Monterey, San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Oakland.

“They say sympathetic words of responsibility and empathy for the victims in their public statements, and all their actions are exactly the opposite,” Simons said of the bishops.

According to Simons, about 500 cases are stayed by the Santa Rosa and Oakland bankruptcy proceedings.

“I’m trying to get cases set for trial, both because trials provide an incentive for settlement and because trials establish values that can be used for settlement of other cases, and of course, the defense doesn’t want to have any trials,” Simons said.

The national Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is preparing a letter to Attorney General Rob Bonta requesting that he issue a report based on information gathered in the lawsuits as well as from when the dioceses were subpoenaed in 2019. The subpoenas were issued to review how the state’s Catholic dioceses handled sex abuse allegations, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We don’t think any of these entities are or will be made insolvent by any awards that are granted to survivors,” said Dan McNevin with SNAP.

McNevin said it’s a “double bottom line” when dioceses declare bankruptcy because it freezes the discovery phase of lawsuits “and they also create this impression that they’re broke and that they can’t afford to pay victims what they’re owed.”

“They want to avoid a jury,” McNevin said.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the most populous Catholic diocese in the country, with some 4 million Catholics, is not planning to file for bankruptcy, despite grappling with at least 1,100 lawsuits. The majority of these cases involve alleged abuse that occurred in the 1970s and earlier, the archdiocese said, and the accused clergy have died or are no longer in ministry.

How the Los Angeles archdiocese plans to avoid bankruptcy with so many cases pending is not clear. In a statement, the archdiocese said it has been “providing, on an ongoing basis, pastoral financial settlements directly to victim-survivors, regardless of the openings of the statute and when the abuse may have occurred.”

In a statement to RNS in early April, the Archdiocese of San Francisco said it was still in the process of evaluating more than 400 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by clergy, volunteers or archdiocesan staff. These cases date back more than 50 years, and a vast majority of the accused are dead, the archdiocese said.

In addition, a large number of the allegations against the San Francisco archdiocese include names of alleged abusers who do not appear to be priests assigned to the archdiocese, it said.

John Andrews, spokesman of the Diocese of San Bernardino, said there are no current plans to file for bankruptcy.

San Bernardino Bishop Alberto Rojas said in a statement in March that the diocese is evaluating “different legal and financial options” to resolve more than 130 sexual abuse lawsuits. A vast majority of the lawsuits involve abuses alleged to have occurred more than 30 years ago, he said.

The diocese, Rojas said, has provided victims with more than $25 million in settlement monies since 2003. Those settlements were paid through a combination of savings and insurance coverage with “little or no impact to our core ministries.” Now, Rojas said, “we must acknowledge the significant financial impact they would have on our local church.”

McNevin, of SNAP, credits the number of outstanding sex abuse claims to “delayed disclosure,” a phenomenon common to survivors of child sex abuse in which individuals remain silent for years before coming forward.

A 2020 report by Child USA found the average age at the time of reporting child sex abuse to be about 52 years. “The average age of abuse is somewhere in the 11- to 14-year-old range, so it’s a 40-year lag,” McNevin said.

McNevin also attributes the flood of cases to the lower stigma associated with being an abuse survivor. “There’s been a lot more awareness … So people are not embarrassed to say it happened to them. They no longer fear being called a liar,” McNevin said.

As SNAP drafts a letter to Bonta, McNevin said they are calling on the attorney general to “examine these bankruptcies closely.”

Just as in New York, where the Diocese of Buffalo has submitted to government oversight, McNevin said there’s an opportunity for Bonta “to really impose an appropriate, safe structure that will keep exposure at a maximum.

“What will happen will be a secular imposition of structure onto the Catholic Church that will force it to be safer,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

US Catholic cleric backed out of $1m settlement with sexual abuse victim

— Virgil Wheeler, who died in April, verbally agreed to deal but made U-turn after learning he would have to register as sex offender

The dispute provides the latest contours to a clerical molestation scandal which for decades has engulfed New Orleans’s Catholic archdiocese.


A US Roman Catholic cleric who admitted in criminal court to sexually abusing a child before his ordination backed out of a seven-figure settlement agreement with his victim after learning he would have to register as a sex offender, the Guardian has confirmed.

The deacon in question – attorney Virgil Maxey “VM” Wheeler III – died earlier this year after writing a will expressing his desire to donate much of his money to prominent institutions, mostly in the Louisiana community in which he worked. His victim is now calling on the beneficiaries to reject those gifts from his abuser.

“Each of these gifts requires these institutions to ascribe to these funds the name of a dead pedophile,” the victim and his attorney, Richard Trahant, said in a statement this week. “None of these institutions should accept this money, which instead should go to” the victim, who described how Wheeler’s reneging on their settlement agreement stemming from molestation to which he has admitted constituted one final act of abuse.

After being asked by the Guardian if they intended to receive the donations, which were contingent on identifying Wheeler by name, two institutions said they did not plan on accepting the gifts. Another said it was not aware, and one did not immediately comment.

The dispute provides the latest contours to a clerical molestation scandal which for decades has engulfed New Orleans’s Catholic archdiocese, the oldest in the US to have declared bankruptcy in the face of a mound of abuse litigation.

Wheeler, 64, in December admitted molesting the victim – the child of family friends – between 2000 and 2002, when the victim was between the ages of 10 and 12. Wheeler correspondingly pleaded guilty to four charges of indecent behavior with a juvenile filed against him in state court in Jefferson parish, which neighbors New Orleans.

In exchange for not taking his case to trial, Wheeler agreed to serve five years of probation, avoid contact with the victim and register as a sex offender for 15 years.

The guilty plea, however, did not resolve a separate civil lawsuit demanding damages for his acknowledged victim. The civil case has grown contentious, generating allegations that prominent New Orleans-area Catholics unsuccessfully mounted a pressure campaign to get the victim – who comes from a locally well-known family but whose name has not been publicly released – to drop his claim against Wheeler.

Prior to his guilty plea, Wheeler had verbally agreed to provide the victim a settlement in excess of $1m to resolve the litigation, the statement from Trahant and his victim said. But upon learning that he would have to register as a sex offender, Wheeler revoked the agreement, “further re-victimizing” the victim.

Wheeler died from pancreatic cancer in early April. Later that month, attorneys representing his estate filed a will that set aside $100,000 to Southern Methodist University business school in Texas for a scholarship in his name, civil court records show.

The will earmarked another $600,000 for trusts set up to benefit his dogs and a pair of siblings. It then specified how he wanted to disburse 40% of the unspecified remainder of his estate to a scholarship in his name aiding students from Louisiana who enroll at New Orleans’s Tulane University law school.

The will said 25% and 10% of the estate’s remainder should go to the charitable fundraising arms of the Jefferson parish-based Ochsner hospital network and the New Orleans archdiocese respectively.

Spokespersons for Tulane and Ochsner said neither intended to accept Wheeler’s donations after being informed of the gifts and asked about them by the Guardian. SMU said it was not aware of the will.

The Catholic Community Foundation did not immediately comment.

Trahant and his client in their statement made it a point to note that the retired Catholic priest Andrew Taormina and the former business manager of the church where Wheeler served as a deacon, Ray Massett, had respectively been given roles as executor of the estate and a trustee of one of the trust funds mentioned in the will.

The victim’s lawsuit had previously alleged that his mother, knowing that Wheeler dreamed of becoming a deacon, had reported to Taormina and other local church officials years earlier that Wheeler had tried to coax the victim and the victim’s brother into his bed on a ski trip when the victim was 12.

Church officials have maintained that the victim did not fully disclose details of his abuse by Wheeler until 2020, two years after Wheeler had been ordained as a deacon.

The victim’s report against Wheeler prompted New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, to suspend Wheeler from serving as a deacon. Prosecutors later charged Wheeler.

Trahant and his client’s statement argued that Taormina and Massett’s selection for decision-making roles associated with Wheeler’s estate “demonstrates how utterly unbothered the hierarchy of the archdiocese of New Orleans is by child sexual abuse”.

A spokesperson for Aymond said he had no comment on the role given to Taormina by Wheeler’s will. The spokesperson also said Massett no longer held any official capacity at the church.

Neither Massett nor the attorney who represented Wheeler when he pleaded guilty in criminal court immediately responded to requests for comment.

The New Orleans archdiocese has so far declined to add Wheeler to a list of more than 80 priests and deacons who have worked – or were ordained – locally and have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults.

Aymond’s initial release of that list in 2018 in what he said was an act of transparency and contrition led to a wave of abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese, which later filed for bankruptcy protection in a case that remains unresolved.

A judge hearing appeals in the bankruptcy recused himself from the matter after the Guardian and the Associated Press inquired about his close political relationship with an attorney whose firm represented archdiocesan affiliates in insurance disputes, among other circumstances.

Court records show that the attorney is part of the legal team representing Wheeler’s estate.

  • In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International

Complete Article HERE!

Oakland Diocese Files For Bankruptcy, Citing 330 Child Sex Abuse Suits

— The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests argued the filing was an attempt to deny survivors justice and transparency they deserve.

By Anna Schier

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland has filed for bankruptcy, citing over 330 child sex abuse lawsuits brought under a recent state statute allowing survivors to pursue cases that would otherwise be expired, the bishop announced Monday.

Under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, legal actions against the bishop will cease, according to a news release from the Diocese of Oakland, which said the bankruptcy would allow the bishop to develop a plan based on assets and insurance available to settle claims.

“After careful consideration of the various alternatives for providing just compensation to innocent people who were harmed, we believe this process is the best way to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for survivors,” Bishop Michael Barber said in the news release.

“It is important we take responsibility for the damage done so we can all move beyond this moment and provide survivors with some measure of peace.”

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests argued the bankruptcy filing was an attempt to deny survivors the justice and transparency they deserve.

“Everything about this bankruptcy strikes us as wrong. It is all about keeping money and secrets,” SNAP said in a prepared statement.

“We would like to know if Bishop Barber considers the 330 innocent victims who have filed lawsuits against his Diocese? These wounded souls were members of the Oakland Diocese. They had been baptized and confirmed, worked as altar servers, or attended Catholic schools. Their families trusted the priests who assaulted their children, and those families donated time and money to the Diocese. They effectively compensated the clergy who had damaged their children’s lives.”

The diocese owns a $200 million cathedral and hundreds of acres in Piedmont, Orinda, Lafayette and Danville, according to SNAP, which called on the government to force the diocese to address the abuse cases one at a time, letting juries hear testimony and award damages.

While the bishop said most of the claims date back more than 30 years and involve priests who are dead or no longer active in ministry, SNAP noted Oakland’s founding bishop, Floyd Begin, is accused of sexually abusing a child, as is the long-serving vicar general, George Crespin.

“Other clerics who are named in lawsuits are still alive,” SNAP said. “Some were still working when accused.”

The bishop remarked that the diocese has created a review board to assess sexual abuse allegations, provides counseling to survivors, and requires clergy, volunteers and employees to undergo child sexual abuse awareness and prevention training as well as background checks.

Catholic schools in the diocese are separate legal entities and are not included in the bankruptcy filing.

Complete Article HERE!

Judge recuses himself from Archdiocese of New Orleans bankruptcy case


A federal judge has recused himself from an archdiocesan bankruptcy case, following an Associated Press report on his affiliations with and donations to the Catholic Church, and despite a vote of confidence from a federal judicial conference committee.

In an order filed April 28, U.S. District Judge Greg Guidry said he had stepped away from the Archdiocese of New Orleans‘ bankruptcy filing “in order to avoid any possible appearance of personal bias or prejudice.”

The move was a reversal of Guidry’s April 21 announcement that he would remain on the case, due to a formal advisory opinion from the federal Judicial Conference’s Committee on the Codes of Conduct — quoted in proceedings that day by Guidry — that “multiple factors (weighed) against the recusal” under the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

An April 21 article by AP had pointed to Guidry’s donations to local Catholic charities, totaling close to $50,000 and made from “leftover (campaign) contributions (Guidry) received after serving 10 years as a Louisiana Supreme Court justice.”

AP said some $36,000 of that amount was donated after the archdiocese’s May 2020 Chapter 11 filing, which Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, writing at the time, had described as a “difficult decision” made in response to clergy abuse settlements, “pressing ministerial needs and budget challenges,” and “the unforeseen circumstances surrounding COVID-19,” which had intensified the archdiocese’s “financial hardships.”

Guidry and his wife, as well as Guidry’s election campaign committee, were listed as donors to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO) in 2017, with AP noting that Guidry had “previously provided pro bono services and served as a board member” for the organization between 2000 and 2008, as the archdiocese faced several sex abuse lawsuits. The archdiocese and CCANO settled one case in 2009 for $5.2 million.

But the federal judicial conference committee held that “none of the charities” to which Guidry had contributed a portion of his wind-down campaign funds “has been or is an actual party” in any proceeding before him.

The committee found that the contributions, though “generous and substantial,” had totaled less than 25% of the campaign funds available for donation. Guidry’s role as a CCANO board member had ended 15 years ago, “a significant span of time and over a decade before” the archdiocesan bankruptcy filing,” said the committee.

Several other decisions already entered by Guidry “(did) not uniformly favor any interested party … a concrete indication of impartiality,” wrote the committee.

The committee also noted that “simply participating … in the life of your parish and the Archdiocese of which it is a part cannot amount to a reasonable basis for questioning impartiality in litigation involving the church without effectively forcing judges to choose between their faith and their adjudicative duties.”

More broadly, legal professionals and faith-based organizations often partner to provide equitable legal access to underserved populations. The nonprofit Louisiana Bar Foundation has supported a number of faith-based agencies, providing free or low-cost legal aid, donating several thousand dollars to CCANO, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Catholic Charities of North Louisiana, as well as to other outreaches, in 2018. Guidry himself was listed among the 2018 donors to the foundation.

Prior to the AP report’s publication, Guidry had on March 27 dismissed the consolidated appeals of abuse claimant attorney Richard C. Trahant, whom the bankruptcy court had sanctioned for violating the court’s protective order in disclosing confidential information to third parties. A call placed by OSV News to Trahant’s office has not yet been returned.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans declined to comment to OSV News on Guidry’s recusal.

In a May 1 statement, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) said Guidry’s recusal was “the obvious and correct decision,” while calling for “all of Judge Guidry’s cases involving the Archdiocese of New Orleans … (to) be scrutinized carefully and sent back to be re-litigated if necessary,” saying that “the judge has had conflicts of interest for years.”

Guidry’s office referred a call placed by OSV News to the Office of Public Affairs at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, which provided transcripts of April 13 and April 21 status conferences during which Guidry addressed lawyers in the Archdiocese of New Orleans bankruptcy case, as well as a copy of Guidry’s April 28 order announcing his recusal.

Complete Article HERE!

US judge who ruled in favor of church in key abuse case donated to archdiocese

— Greg Guidry gave the New Orleans church thousands of dollars and now refuses to step down from a case involving 500 victims

Greg Guidry at a hearing for district court nominees held by the Senate judiciary committee in 2019.

By The Associated Press and Guardian staff

A federal judge donated tens of thousands of dollars to New Orleans’ Roman Catholic archdiocese and consistently ruled in favor of the church amid a contentious bankruptcy involving nearly 500 clergy sex abuse victims, an Associated Press investigation has found, but the judge won’t step down from the case.

Confronted with AP’s findings, which had not been previously reported, US district judge Greg Guidry abruptly convened attorneys on a call last week to tell them his charitable giving “has been brought to my attention” and he would consider recusal from the high-profile bankruptcy he oversees in an appellate role.

“Naturally,” Guidry told them, “I will take no further action in this case until this question has been resolved.”

Guidry indicated he would seek guidance from the federal judiciary’s committee on codes of conduct. And in a separate hearing called on Friday, he told attorneys in the case that the committee had approved his continuing to handle appeals related to the bankruptcy.

The reporting by Jim Mustian of the AP on Guidry is only one example of how many links are shared by the New Orleans area’s legal establishment and the local archdiocese, which serves a region with a half-million Catholics and is the oldest to declare bankruptcy amid the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Several of Guidry’s colleagues have recused themselves from the bankruptcy or related litigation, including one who previously worked as the archdiocese’s general counsel, another who has served on a non-profit which supports numerous archdiocesan ministries, and one who acknowledged a role in behind-the-scenes media relations campaigns that executives of the New Orleans Saints football team helped the archdiocese mount after reporting on church sex abuse cases in 2018 and 2019.

The third of those judges last year, though, struck down a Louisiana law which allowed sexual abuse victims to sue the church and other institutions no matter how many years earlier the alleged molestation took place.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing abuse victims in the bankruptcy are seeking to unseal thousands of secret church documents produced as evidence in lawsuits and in an ongoing federal law enforcement investigation of clergy abuse in New Orleans going back decades. Agents involved in that investigation last year spoke with a retired Catholic priest from New Orleans named Lawrence Hecker who has been publicly accused of molesting “countless” children, but he has not been charged with any crimes.

A local federal magistrate, Michael North, ruled against a request to unseal a deposition of Hecker that was taken in a lawsuit accusing him of molestation, even though North’s wife served on a board that manages an archdiocesan-owned healthcare system. North later recused himself, without elaborating on why.

Guidry, for his part, had denied at least one request to unseal some secret church documents. He also recently upheld a $400,000 fine against local attorney Richard Trahant, who represents clergy abuse victims and was accused of violating a confidentiality order when he warned a local principal that his school was employing a priest, Paul Hart, who admitted to sexually molesting a teenaged girl. Hart died last year in November.

Ethics experts had told the AP that Guidry, 62, should recuse himself from handling church bankruptcy appeals to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest, even if it could significantly delay a proceeding that was initiated in May 2020. But Guidry made clear on Friday he has no intention of doing that, though it remains to be seen if that is the final word on the matter.

AP’s review of campaign finance records found that Guidry, since being nominated to the federal bench in 2019 by the Donald Trump White House, has given nearly $50,000 to local Catholic charities from leftover contributions he received after serving 10 years as a Louisiana state supreme court justice.

Most of that giving, $36,000 of it, came in the months after the archdiocese sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid a crush of sexual abuse lawsuits. That included a $12,000 donation to the archdiocese’s Catholic Community Foundation in September 2020 on the same day as a series of filings in the bankruptcy, and a $14,000 donation to the same charity in July of the following year.

But Guidry’s philanthropy over the years also appears to include private donations. Newsletters issued by Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the charitable arm of the archdiocese, recognized Guidry and his wife among its donors for unspecified contributions, in 2017 listing both the judge and his campaign.

The judge previously provided pro bono services and served as a board member for Catholic Charities between 2000 and 2008, a time when the archdiocese was navigating an earlier wave of sexual abuse lawsuits. Catholic Charities was involved in at least one multimillion-dollar settlement to victims beaten and sexually abused at two local orphanages.

Complete Article HERE!