Pope Francis has revoked retired Cardinal Raymond Burke’s salary and his right to a subsidized apartment in the Vatican.
The staunchly anti-LGBTQ+ Burke has been one of the most vocal critics of the pope’s outreach to the queer community and other liberal moves.
“Francis told a meeting of the heads of Vatican offices last week that he was moving against Burke because he was a source of ‘disunity’ in the church,” the Associated Press reports, citing an anonymous source. Burke hadn’t received any notice of the action as of Tuesday, his secretary told the AP. A Vatican spokesman contacted by The New York Timeswouldn’t confirm or deny the report.
“Almost as soon as Pope Francis became the head of the Roman Catholic church in 2013,” the Times notes, Burke “emerged as his leading critic from within the church, becoming a de facto antipope for frustrated traditionalists who believed Francis was diluting doctrine.”
Most recently, Burke was one of five retired cardinals who submitted questions to the pope on his stances on a variety of issues, including marriage equality and same-sex unions, women in the priesthood, and who is the ultimate worldly authority of the Catholic Church. Francis responded by indicating he would be open to some form of blessing for same-sex unions, although he said they should not be considered marriages, and said the ordination of women “can be the object of study.” He did not make any definitive changes, however.
Burke’s anti-LGBTQ+ views are in keeping with church doctrine that gay sex is a sin and that gender is fixed at birth, but he has often been more hostile to the LGBTQ+ community than other Catholic leaders.
In 2003, as a bishop of Wisconsin, he ordered the church-supported Central Wisconsin HIV/AIDS Ministry Project to cease participating in the state’s AIDS walk or accepting any of the funds raised because, he said, some of the other groups that benefit from the walk “actively and publicly promote homosexual activity.”
Burke went on to become archbishop of St. Louis, where he served from 2004 to 2008, then headed the church’s highest court. He was appointed to the court position by Francis’s immediate predecessor, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, but was removed from that post by Francis in 2014. He has continued speaking out against the LGBTQ+ community as a retired cardinal.
In March 2020, as many churches began holding services remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said faithful Catholics should attend Mass in person to fight changes in the culture, including recognition of transgender identity. “We need only to think of the pervasive attack upon the integrity of human sexuality, of our identity as man or woman, with the pretense of defining for ourselves, often employing violent means, a sexual identity other than that given to us by God,” he wrote on his website at the time. “With ever greater concern, we witness the devastating effect on individuals and families of the so-called ‘gender theory.’”
Burke was a COVID vaccine skeptic, even repeating a conspiracy theory that vaccines included microchips with which governments could monitor people’s movements. He contracted COVID in 2021.
This is Pope Francis’s second recent action against a major critic. This month he removed Bishop Joseph Strickland as head of the diocese of Tyler, Texas. Strickland had accused Francis of undermining the faith through his tentatively liberal moves, including his welcoming attitude toward LGBTQ+ people.
A San Mateo priest accused of molestation in a lawsuit is one of two accused clergy who remain in active ministry with the Archdiocese of San Francisco as the church faces renewed questions over how it responds to sexual abuse allegations.
The lawsuit, filed in Alameda County in November 2022, alleges Father Linh Tien Nguyen sexually abused a former altar boy and student of St. Pius Catholic Church and School in Redwood City between approximately 2005 and 2008.
The plaintiff in the case, identified as “M.S.,” alleges he was between 10 and 13 years old. He is now in his late 20s.
“This young person has got a lot of courage,” said Dan McNevin, Oakland leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “If there’s any good news in this, it’s that this survivor had the courage at a very young age to come forward and has probably expedited the healing of a lot more kids.”
Official Catholic Church records show Nguyen worked as a pastor at St. Pius from 2005 through 2009. He is currently an associate pastor at St. Bartholomew Parish in San Mateo.
Nguyen and other staff members of St. Bartholomew did not respond to KQED’s requests for comment on the allegation.
A second priest, Father David Ghiorso, faces multiple allegations of sexual abuse of young boys at St. Vincent’s School for Boys in San Rafael and a Sonoma County summer camp in the 1980s and ’90s, according to court records and a source familiar with one of the cases.
The details of the accusations are laid out in documents from two lawsuits filed in Alameda County — one in 2020 and another in 2022. Today, Ghiorso is the pastor of St. Charles Parish in San Carlos and St. Matthias Church in Redwood City.
The allegations in the lawsuits have not been proven. The plaintiffs either declined or did not respond to interview requests.
“I can tell you that the Archdiocese followed its procedures in the instances you raised and that Fr. Ghiorso and Fr. Nguyen are priests in good standing and have faculties to minister in the Archdiocese,” Peter Marlow, the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s executive director of communications and media relations, told KQED in an email.
The Archdiocese also denies the allegations in legal filings.
News of the allegation against Nguyen comes as the Archdiocese is pressed for details in bankruptcy proceedings about how it handles sexual abuse allegations, and which priests it has deemed credibly accused.
On Nov. 8, the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, which represents survivors, requested the court’s authorization to subpoena the Archdiocese for documents on the church’s finances and allegations of abuse dating back multiple decades. The Archdiocese objected, calling the request “excessively overbroad, vague and harassing.” A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30.
The Archdiocese sought Chapter 11 protection in federal bankruptcy court in August as it faced more than 530 lawsuits filed by individuals alleging sexual abuse by clergy or others associated with the Archdiocese under a 2019 state law, Assembly Bill 218, or the California Child Victims Act. The law waived all time limits for abuse claims from 2020 through the end of last year, and it permanently extended age limits to sue for childhood molestation — from age 26 to 40 years old or within five years after the discovery of the abuse.
The bankruptcy proceedings effectively froze all the state court cases filed against the San Francisco Archdiocese, its institutions and clergy.
In recent back-to-back legal calls in the bankruptcy case, representatives of the Archdiocese answered questions under oath from the Office of the U.S. Trustee and the committee about the church’s financial situation and knowledge of abuse allegations. Officials said the church had found no accusations against clergy to be credible in the past decade, but has become aware of multiple allegations in that time.
In a Sept. 28 meeting of creditors, the Archdiocese’s Vicar General, Father Patrick Summerhays, disclosed that two active priests and two retired priests had been accused of abuse. Each has been exonerated by the church’s internal process, according to the Archdiocese.
“I have not yet received a credible allegation against a priest, although I have received allegations,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said two weeks later in a continuation of the hearing, referring to his 11 years as Archbishop.
When asked how many cases the Archdiocese has received in that time, Cordileone said there have been seven or eight accusations the church has had to investigate.
The Archdiocese’s process for responding to an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor involves reporting the allegation to civil authorities and removing the accused priest from active ministry while an investigation is conducted by a qualified investigator. A report on the findings of that investigation are handed over to the Archdiocese’s Independent Review Board, a panel of lay people who issues a recommendation to the Archbishop as to whether the allegation is ‘sustained’ or ‘not sustained,’ according to the Archdiocese’s website and church representatives.
“I’ve heard different theories as to what credibly accused means,” Cordileone said. “I try not to use that term and rather use [the] term ‘sustained’ or ‘not sustained.’”
What standard the Independent Review Board, or IRB, uses to determine if an allegation is sustained is unclear, James Stang, an attorney for the Unsecured Creditors’ Committee, later told KQED in a phone interview.
“I can’t find anything that defines it in what the public can see on the website,” Stang said. “In other words, if I go to the website, and they discuss the review board process, I don’t see a definition of what constitutes a sustained claim.”
He continued: “I think the public should know what it means to have a sustained accusation. There has to be a definition somewhere. It can’t just be a gut check. There must be some standard that these review board people are using.”
While there isn’t a single, uniform definition of what constitutes a “credible accusation” against a priest that is shared across all Catholic dioceses, many have publicly shared their interpretations alongside published lists of credibly accused priests in their jurisdiction.
In its Nov. 8 filing, the creditors’ committee asked for records related to abuse claims dating back to as early as 1941. Among them: personnel files of accused priests, communication between the Archdiocese and law enforcement agencies over the years, and documents explaining the church’s interpretation of “credibly accused.” It also requests documents from the paper trail of the church’s evaluation of sexual abuse allegations, including IRB meeting minutes, interview notes and recommendations.
When asked what standard of proof the IRB uses to determine if an allegation is “sustained” or not, Marlow said, “The process is for the Independent Review Board to review a claim and the investigator’s report and any other relevant information that can support a recommendation.”
When pressed for more details, he declined to clarify that aspect of the process further. In a subsequent email, Marlow elaborated on what happens when the IRB determines that an allegation is sustained. If the IRB finds that there is sufficient evidence to warrant a canonical trial and the trial results in a conviction, then the accused priest would be permanently removed from ministry. If the IRB finds that an accusation is not sustained, then the priest is reinstated to active ministry and damage to his reputation is remediated.
The IRB was established in 2002, the same year that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy often referred to as the Dallas Charter.
“Review boards were strangled in the crib before they could do something,” said Jim Jenkins, a retired East Bay psychologist who was the IRB’s first chairman at its inception.
Jenkins resigned in 2004 over concerns about the board’s integrity and ability to investigate independently. During his time on the panel, it was the Archbishop who decided what to do with an allegation, not the IRB, Jenkins told KQED.
“When they say the review board reviewed this and did not find anything sustained, that may be true,” Jenkins said. “But the fact that father so and so is recommended to be suspended — that is completely up to the Archbishop. They would never allow anyone else to make that decision. Certainly not lay people.”
Jenkins acknowledged that nearly 20 years have passed since he served on the board, which may have different processes today.
Attorneys for the Archdiocese stated that Cordileone has always followed the IRB’s guidance. Three IRB members contacted by KQED did not respond to interview requests.
Nguyen was placed on administrative leave in October 2022 and returned to ministry two months later, according to the Archdiocese. Ghiorso went on leave for around two months in late 2021.
Marlow declined to say what information the Archdiocese found in its investigations that resulted in Nguyen and Ghiorso both returning to ministry.
“While IRB investigations and recommendations are not shared with the media, I can tell you that the Archdiocese followed its procedures in the instances you raised and that Fr. Ghiorso and Fr. Nguyen are priests in good standing and have faculties to minister in the Archdiocese,” Marlow told KQED in an email.
Spencer Lucas, the attorney representing the complainant identified as M.S. in the lawsuit accusing Nguyen, expressed skepticism about the church’s processes.
“We do know that the Catholic Church, on a very broad scale, has done an inadequate investigation into many, many of these claims,” he said. “We should all be concerned that the church has not taken adequate steps to properly investigate claims and to institute appropriate training to raise awareness about this ongoing problem.”
‘We have our own list’
Survivors and advocates have been calling on the Archdiocese of San Francisco to release a list of priests who have been credibly accused under its watch for years.
In the Oct. 12 meeting of creditors, Cordileone disclosed that while the list hasn’t been released to the public, it does exist.
“Does the Archdiocese have a list of clergy where the [Independent] Review Board has made a determination that the accusation is sustained?” Stang asked the Archbishop.
“We know which ones those are, yeah,” Cordinelone replied. “We have our own list.”
Asked why the Archdiocese has not published the list, Cordileone said that no one has given him a reason for doing so.
“The most important thing is that our young people are being protected and that those who abuse are kept out of ministry for doing that,” he added.
Jennifer Stein, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, which represents over 400 alleged survivors with claims in Northern California, the majority of whom are in the Bay Area, was listening.
“This is an ongoing and recurring theme that is self-serving to the Archdiocese,” Stein said. “It puts children and the public in great peril by keeping that information secret.”
In September 2022, SNAP published its own list of 312 priests who have been publicly accused of abuse and were associated at one point or another with the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Nguyen’s name is not included on the list as the M.S. lawsuit was filed two months after publication. Ghiorso’s name, however, is.
In October 2021, parishioners of both churches where Ghiorso currently works were notified via a letter that he had been named in filed claims and would be temporarily restricted from exercising public ministry while an investigation was conducted.
The announcement came nearly a year after a lawsuit was filed in Alameda Superior Court by two men alleging they had been sexually abused while they were living at St. Vincent’s School for Boys, a residential program for disadvantaged boys in San Rafael.
In court records from the lawsuit, plaintiff Gary Johnson alleges that he and other boys from St. Vincent’s were molested by priests at a summer camp in Sonoma County for several years in the early 1980s.
The lawsuit alleges several priests began showing up at St. Vincent’s weekly to take the boys off-campus to Camp Armstrong, where they were given alcohol and molested or forced to engage in sex acts with one another, according to court records.
“When not participating, perpetrator defendants would also watch the boys abuse one another and would masturbate as they watched,” the complaint reads.
After reporting the abuse to an athletic coach at the school, who notified the school’s front office, Johnson was removed from St. Vincent’s and placed in a foster home, according to the complaint.
A second plaintiff in the same lawsuit alleges a priest abused him for a year, shortly after he arrived at St. Vincent’s in 1989 at the age of 9 and became an altar boy. Marcus Raymond Hill alleges that on one occasion, when he and other boys were invited to the rectory for doughnuts after mass, he was asked to stay longer, given wine and forced to masturbate the priest.
On three other occasions, the complaint states the priest allegedly plied Hill with wine and anally penetrated and raped him.
Ghiorso, who is not named in the lawsuit, is identified as the alleged perpetrator in the case on a matrix filed in Alameda Superior Court. The matrix is a chart that displays data from hundreds of Northern California clergy sex abuse cases filed under AB 218, including case numbers, attorney names, alleged perpetrator names, dates of alleged abuse and other information.
A person familiar with the case confirmed to KQED that Ghiorso is an alleged perpetrator in the lawsuit. NBC Bay Area previously reported the allegations.
Ghiorso was ordained in 1981 and worked as a pastor at Our Lady of Loretto Church in Novato through 1985, according to the Official Catholic Directory. From 1986-1990, he was the associate director of St. Vincent’s. Ghiorso went on to fill leadership roles with the Catholic Youth Organization and CYO Archbishop McGucken Youth Retreat and Conference Center, the location of Camp Armstrong, records show.
Ghiorso returned to the ministry in December 2021 following his temporary leave, according to Marlow. Four months later, court records show, he was accused in a new lawsuit of ongoing abuse of another altar boy at St. Vincent’s.
From around 1988 through 1991, an unnamed plaintiff alleges, he was “continuously anally raped and sexually assaulted” by Ghiorso when he was 10-13 years old. The plaintiff alleges Ghiorso began sexually abusing him in an area of the church that altar boys used to change. The abuse escalated to mutual oral sex and penetration in the church and at Ghiorso’s office, according to court records.
Several times, the plaintiff attempted to run away from St. Vincent’s and was heavily medicated by staff at the facility in an attempt to control his behavioral outbursts, the complaint reads.
The plaintiff first reported the alleged abuse to a private investigator hired by the Archdiocese, who contacted him in late 2021, according to the complaint. The investigator had “been previously told by one of the plaintiff’s classmates that the plaintiff may have been one of Father Ghiorso’s many victims,” the document reads.
“It was not until the plaintiff was contacted by the investigator that his memories of what Father Ghiorso did to him as a child resurfaced,” according to the document.
Ghiorso and his attorney did not respond to KQED’s multiple requests for comment.
When asked if Ghiorso was removed from ministry a second time pending an investigation into the new claim, Marlow declined to specify and instead restated that the Archdiocese’s procedures were followed in each case.
“There are good reasons why Fr. Ghiorso is a priest in good standing with faculties to serve in the Archdiocese of San Francisco,” he said.
Without doubt, the best line to emanate from the Synod on Synoldality is “Excuse me, Your Eminence, she has not finished speaking.”
That sums up the synod and the state of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward change.
In October, hundreds of bishops, joined by lay men and women, priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers met for nearly a month in Rome for the Synod on Synodality. At its end, the synod released a synthesis report brimming with the hope and the promise that the church would be a more listening church.
Some 54 women voted at the synod. Back home, women are still ignored.
It is not because women quote the Second Vatican Council at parish council meetings. It is because too many bishops and pastors ignore parish councils.
It is not because women of the world do not write to their pastors and bishops. It is because without large checks, their letters are ignored.
The Synod on Synodality was groundbreaking in part because it was more about learning to listen. It was more about the process than about results. Its aim was to get the whole church on board with a new way of relating, of having “conversations in the Spirit,” where listening and prayer feed discernment and decision-making.
Even now, the project faces roadblocks. At their November meeting this week in Baltimore, U.S. bishops heard presentations by Brownsville, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores, who has led the two-year national synod process so far. His brother bishops did not look interested.
To be fair, some bishops in some dioceses, in the U.S. and other parts of the world, are on board with Pope Francis’ attempt to encourage the church to accept the reforms of Vatican II, to listen to the people of God.
But too many bishops are having none of it.
The synod recognized the church’s global infection with narcissistic clericalism. It said fine things about women in leadership and the care of other marginalized people. Yet the synod remains a secret in many places. Its good words don’t reach the people in the pews.
Ask about synodality in any parish, and you might hear “Oh, we don’t do that here.” You are equally likely to hear “When I” sermons (“When I was in seminary,” “When I was in another parish”), and not about the Gospel.
Folks who were excited by Francis’ openness and pastoral message just shake their heads.
The women who want to contribute, who want to belong, are more than dispirited. They have had it. And they are no longer walking toward the door — they are running, bringing their husbands, children and checkbooks with them.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, it was recently discovered that Mass attendance had dropped 40% since 2017. It is the same in too many places. The reason the church is wobbling is not a lack of piety. It is because women are ignored. Their complaints only reach as far as the storied circular file.
What do women complain about? Bad sermons, as discussed. Autocratic pastors. And the big one: pederasty. If truth be told, women do not trust unmarried men with their children. Worldwide, in diocese after diocese, new revelations continue. Still.
Many bishops and pastors understand this. Francis certainly does, but he is constrained by clerics who dig their heels into a past many of them never knew. More and more young (and older) priests pine for the 1950s, when priests wore lace and women knew their place. That imagining does not include synodality.
Will the synod effort work? Francis’ opening to women in church management is promising. Where women are in the chancery, there is more opportunity for women’s voices to be heard. No doubt, a few more women there could help.
Getting women into the sacristy is trickier.
While it seems most synod members agreed about restoring women to the ordained diaconate as a recognition of the baptismal equality of all, some stalwarts argued it was against Tradition. Still others saw the specter of a “Western gender ideology” seeking to confuse the roles of men and women.
So, they asked for a review of the research. Again.
Women know the obvious: Women were ordained as deacons. There will never be complete agreement on the facts of history, anthropology and theology. Women have said this over and over.
If there is absolute evidence that women cannot be restored to the ordained diaconate, it should be presented, and a decision made.
Dressed in purple and wielding lavender banners, dozens of women took to the cobblestone paths lining the Vatican to advocate for female ordination this past October. The organizing group — Women’s Ordination Conference — has become one of the largest organizations calling for the ordination of women and gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church. The WOC’s recent march took place during the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, a month-long summit where members of the Catholic Church gather to discuss concerns facing the Church. Amongst the issues addressed, women’s role in the church emerged as one of the most contentious topics.
Female ordination has been banned within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. The 1994 apostolic letter issued by Pope John Paul II further cemented the Church’s strong opposition to women joining the priesthood. Still, the topic has continued to be one of the most criticized stances taken by the Church. Although Pope Francis expressed that there is no “clear and authoritative doctrine” regarding the ordination of women, some members of the Church feel differently.
Proponents of female ordination often assert the fact that all 12 of Jesus’s Apostles were men as justification for prohibiting women from being ordained. Indeed, Jesus and his apostles were men, but this logic seems to blatantly ignore the fact that women also held leadership roles in early Christianity. In Colossians 4:15, Nympha is described as hosting a church in her home, similar to Apphia in Philemon 2. And in Romans 16:1, Paul commends Phoebe for being a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. To assert that women are unqualified to preach solely because of their gender is a myopic reading of the Bible that silences the stories of female biblical figures. Archival evidence further shows that women served as priests and even bishops from the second to sixth centuries, affirming their experience as preachers.
Still, picturing a woman dressed in an alb and chasuble can be difficult for some to imagine. One participant at the recent Synod explained he felt “violated” by the concept of female priests. The current sentiment regarding female ordination is partly attributed to the Church’s view on gender roles: that there is a clear distinction between men and women. Yet using this as reasoning to prevent female ordination is hypocritical. Under Gaudium et spes, discrimination, including gender discrimination, is called to be eliminated. Preventing women from being ordained because of their gender contradicts the Church’s own teaching.
Certain Catholic women have sought to pursue their dreams of priestly vocations despite the current policies in place. The Roman Catholic woman priest movement, consisting of over 200 women globally, takes part in unauthorized ordination practices to help women become priests. But it comes at significant risk: Women who become ordained can face hostility and be punished with excommunication from the Church.
The Catholic Church should look to embrace female ordination as opposed to fearing it. From a pragmatic standpoint, allowing women to be ordained could help remedy the ongoing priest shortage in the U.S. by filling vacant roles. It has also been consistently proven that having women in leadership roles helps to improve fairness and increase collaboration. As nuns, American women have shown great involvement in forwarding social justice initiatives too. Given that as of 2015, 59% of Catholic Americans believed that women should be allowed to be ordained, there is evident support behind this movement. While the Catholic Church has remained relatively fixed in its stance on female ordination, women in general have seen tremendous strides in autonomy within the past few centuries, from gaining voting rights to serving as CEOs in the workforce. But it’s time for the Catholic Church, an institution grounded in the belief of solidarity, to start demonstrating that virtue toward women.
In Oakland, California, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the Light is difficult to miss. Towering over Lake Merritt in the heart of the city, its modernist glass dome reflects the East Bay sun in all directions.
The building, which was completed in 2008 and financed by the Roman Catholic diocese of Oakland, cost $175m. But that price tag confounds Joseph Piscitelli.
In the 1970s, Piscitelli attended a Catholic high school in nearby Richmond, where, from the age of 14, he experienced repeated sexual abuse at the hands of his vice-principal, an ordained priest. For decades, Piscitelli experienced nightmares and panic attacks. Friends who had also been abused turned to drugs and alcohol, and several took their own lives.
In 2003, Piscitelli sued the Salesian College Preparatory high school and the Salesian order, and won. While the cases were decided in his favor in 2006, they had not held leaders at the top accountable. So, in 2020, he filed a new suit, this time against the Oakland diocese.
Then, to Piscitelli’s dismay, the diocese declared bankruptcy in May. As a result, his case was put on an indefinite hold.
“Oakland could get together enough money to build a $200m cathedral not too long ago, but they can’t get the money together to pay the child victims whom they raped for decades,” Piscitelli said. “They’re morally and ethically bankrupt, but they’re not financially bankrupt.”
One by one, various arms of the Catholic church across California have declared bankruptcy, citing an inability to pay damages from large numbers of sexual abuse lawsuits. The dioceses of Santa Rosa and Oakland filed in the spring. The archdiocese of San Francisco followed suit in August, and the diocese of San Diego has shared its plan to do the same in November. The lawsuits come at a time when Catholicism in California is growing – fueled in large part by immigration from Latin America and Asia – while other parts of the US, including former Catholic hubs in the north-east, are seeing their numbers dwindle.
The flood of California suits came after 2019 legislation opened a three-year “look-back window” that would allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file suits based on old claims that would normally have fallen outside the statute of limitations. When the window closed last December, more than 2,000 individuals around the state had filed cases against the Catholic church; 330 accusers have sued the Oakland diocese alone.
“No one really expected this huge number [of abuse cases] to come in at this last month,” said Maureen Day, a sociologist and associate professor of religion and society at the Franciscan School of Theology. “It suddenly became a much larger financial hardship for many dioceses.”
But declaring chapter 11 does not mean that the church is broke, said Marie Reilly, professor of law at Penn State University. Rather, it is a legal strategy undertaken by corporations that say they don’t have the funds to pay a high number of individual settlements. Known as “reorganization”, these bankruptcy protections let the church avoid undertaking dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of individual costly trials by grouping them into one settlement.
But the church claims bankruptcy is also fairer to victims, primarily because it means each victim is treated equally and all survivors receive even payouts.
“You see some of the settlements that are out there. You can almost use up all the funds on one or two settlements, and the rest of the survivors that have legitimate concerns get nothing,” said Peter Marlow, executive director of communications and media relations for the archdiocese of San Francisco. In 2019, the Los Angeles archdiocese paid $8m to a single abuse survivor. To date, settlements have cost California’s Catholic church more than $1b.
“The diocese believes this is the best way to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for all survivors and provide just compensation to the innocent people who were harmed while allowing the diocese to stabilize its finances and continue its sacred mission entrusted to it by Christ and the church,” said Helen Osman, director of communications for the diocese of Oakland.
To abuse survivors, the proceedings feel like a cop-out. “It’s just another way to silence us,” says Dan McNevin, who leads the Oakland chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (Snap) support group.
Unlike trials, bankruptcy proceedings do not involve a discovery process, meaning key pieces of information about what church leaders knew may never be revealed.
McNevin knows how meaningful those revelations can be. As a child, he was an altar boy at his local parish in Fremont, south of Oakland, where he says he was groomed and abused by his priest. In 2003, following California’s first look-back window, he brought a suit against the diocese of Oakland, claiming it had knowingly shuffled his abuser from place to place to mask his crimes.
The diocese initially denied those claims, but during the trial, documents unearthed during discovery revealed that Father James Clark had been convicted of sexual abuse years before he arrived in Fremont.
“When we discovered that he had been arrested, my case was made,” said McNevin. “It probably helped settle 60 cases.” But those cases were settled individually, not collectively, as they would be in bankruptcy proceedings – a critical difference to McNevin.
“They’re going to try to slice and dice the survivors into categories,” he said. “How do you contemplate making those kinds of stark arbitrary decisions when every human being is different?”
Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator at Snap, says the removal of the discovery process results in victim retraumatization. “What they’re really looking for is information,” she said. “After waiting all these years before finally getting themselves together enough to come forward and file a lawsuit, it’s disappointing. And it makes people angry.”
For Piscitelli, the suggestion that the church is unable to afford individual lawsuits is especially infuriating. He says those claims come across as disingenuous in light of the vast assets held by California’s Catholic organizations, which include properties in some of the country’s most expensive real estate markets.
“It’s duplicitous at best,” said Piscitelli. “It’s advantageous for the diocese.”
McNevin, who has spent years researching church holdings and tallying diocesan assets, agrees. Using public ownership and title records, McNevin claims to have found that the Oakland bishop as a corporation owns more than 2,000 pieces of land. Some, like churches and schools, are central to the church’s mission, and will therefore be excluded from settlement discussions. But others appear to be empty plots of land, rental properties or shopping centers, he says.
“I was stunned,” said McNevin, who has shared the appraisals – which Snap says total more than $3bn – with the Oakland bishop, Michael C Barber, and attorneys for the plaintiffs. “They have the assets to pay people whatever is needed,” McNevin claimed.
The diocese of Oakland did not respond to requests for clarification about how real estate will play into the proceedings, and would not confirm or deny that the Oakland bishop owns this much real estate, aside from saying that it owned approximately 100 parishes at its peak. Documents from the case state the diocese’s real property value is “undetermined” and list Furrer Properties, Inc – a stock corporation that owns and rents properties – as an asset.
The archdiocese of San Francisco flatly denies any accusations of secrecy or obfuscation. “Anyone can have access to the information. It’s available on a website that’s free of charge,” said spokesperson Marlow.
Another element the church emphasizes is that declining membership and rising costs, particularly during the pandemic, have squeezed budgets and limited the church’s ability to perform its duties. As a result, parishes have been forced to consolidate and close.
Day, the sociologist, says potential church closures are an equity issue, since immigrants comprise a large portion of parishioners. “These are people who are in need of jobs, in need of community,” she said. “So we are going to be failing these new migrants as well.”
Seeking bankruptcy protections safeguards worshippers, the church says, because it ensures that only the bishop is sued. “The parishes, the schools and the other ministries associated with the archdiocese aren’t included,” said Marlow.
Yet experts say the proceedings do affect the local Catholic community emotionally and spiritually. “There is a lot of pain and hurt,” said Day. Reilly added that in the past, sexual abuse allegations have caused some individuals to leave the church altogether.
Back in Oakland, Piscitelli finds it impossible to believe that the church’s motivations are anything but nefarious.
“As a victim and a survivor, this is an entity that has historically and habitually enabled child rapists for decades. They covered for them, they transferred them, they shuffled them and they enabled them. And now they’re stating that they want to provide compassionate and equitable solutions for survivors,” he said. “I don’t believe it for a second.”
Piscitelli said he has heard from a number of fellow survivors who feel the same way. Many of them elected not to file lawsuits for that very reason.
Those who did, however, plan to support one another in fighting against the legitimacy of the bankruptcy ruling in order to have their own individual trials. That’s the only way that, Piscitelli says, they can begin to close past wounds.
“It’s like looking at scenes on Netflix, but it’s real, and you had to live it.”