A Roman Catholic diocese in a New York City suburb has filed for bankruptcy amid a barrage of sexual abuse lawsuits, becoming the largest in the United States to do so.
In a statement (PDF) on Thursday, the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre said its bankruptcy filing was “necessary to manage litigation expenses, address disputes with the Diocese’s insurers and facilitate settlements with abuse survivors”.
Bishop John O Barres said in a separate letter that more than 200 lawsuits alleging abuse have been filed against the diocese since New York state passed a law last year removing multiple barriers to justice for victims.
The Child Victims Act removed a five-year statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits against priests and other clergies.
Previously, the statute of limitations in the most serious such cases ran out when the victim turned 23, but the Child Victims Act allows victims to come forward anytime before age 55. Victims have until August 2021 to file their claims.
“Filing for Chapter 11, we believe, is the only way for the Diocese to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for everyone involved,” Barres said in his letter on behalf of the centre, which encompasses much of Long Island and 1.4 million Catholics.
“That is because the bankruptcy court will centralise all litigation and oversee a settlement that ensures that no survivor is left out or gets unfair compensation at the expense of another survivor.”
However, sexual abuse survivors slammed the diocese’s announcement, saying Rockville Centre appeared to be trying to skirt its responsibility to victims.
This is legalese and this is corporate protection. This has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ
Jeff Anderson, a lawyer for 73 people suing the Rockville Centre Diocese over alleged abuse, told The Associated Press news agency that the bankruptcy filing was “strategic, cowardly and wholly self-serving”.
John Schratwieser, who alleges a diocese priest abused him about 40 years ago, also told the news agency that the filing seemed like “an easy way for the church to get out of claiming full responsibility for what happened”.
“This is legalese and this is corporate protection,” Schratwieser said. “This has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Three other dioceses in New York state filed for bankruptcy within the last 13 months – Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo – while dioceses in Pennsylvania, as well as the Archdiocese of New Orleans, also did the same last year.
In all, about two dozen dioceses or archdioceses in the US – including Portland, Oregon; San Diego; and St Paul-Minneapolis – have sought such protection in the face of lawsuits over sexual abuse since the early 2000s.
Across the US, Catholic dioceses have paid out about $4bn since the 1980s because of sexual abuse.