Hundreds of sexual abuse cases have forced the Catholic Church in San Francisco to declare bankruptcy. The heads of 88 parishes in three Bay Area counties announced the decision in a statement, arguing that the process is necessary because it will help the Church “manage and resolve” more than 500 allegations of child sexual abuse perpetrated between the 1960s and 1980s. The legal strategy, known as Chapter 11 in U.S. law, has been widely used by other archdioceses facing the same problem.
“The unfortunate reality is that the Archdiocese has neither the financial means nor the practical ability to litigate all of these abuse claims individually,” Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore J. Cordileone notes in the statement, which was made public Monday night. “It is the best way to bring much-needed resolution to survivors while allowing the Archdiocese to continue its sacred mission to the faithful and those in need,” Cordileone added. Many of these cases are resolved in the United States through out-of-court settlements, a way for perpetrators to avoid a public trial.
The archdiocese has reported that the process, which will take place in the Northern California judicial district, allows each of the claims to be evaluated on their own merits, something intended to add “transparency” when it comes to paying damages to victims of clerical pedophilia. “Chapter 11 is a court-supervised process [...] and gives claimants a voice in the outcome,” the document states. The archdiocese claims that the “overwhelming majority” of the more than 500 claims involve priests “who are no longer active in ministry or who are deceased.”
Cordileone stated in the document that “today, occurrences of abuse within the Catholic Church are very rare.” “Given the educational and preventative measures now in place, I believe the Church has set the standard for other organizations, showing what can and should be done to protect our children,” he added. Among the measures adopted were carrying out criminal background checks “for clergy, employees, and volunteers who work with youth” access to counseling and assistance for the survivors of abuse, in addition to the removal from ministry of “Priests or deacons who are under investigation for alleged child sexual abuse.” The archbishop added that his diocese, which serves some 442,000 Catholics, began making changes even before the General Convention adopted a child protection plan in 2002.
This is the second time the Catholic Church has faced a wave of sexual abuse lawsuits in California. Twenty years ago, the state government created a window allowing survivors to denounce abuses in court that were time-barred in the judicial system. During the #MeToo movement in 2019, California instated a similar period for victims to file civil legal claims. The deadline was in effect until December 31, 2022.
According to the archdiocese, the Catholic Church in California has paid $70 million in legal settlements with abuse survivors since 2003. This money was obtained using insurance funds and the sale of Church-owned properties in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties. Monsignor Cordileone has stated that contributions and alms given by parishioners will not be used to settle abuse claims. “According to a very ancient legal and moral principle, the intention of the donor must always be respected,” the archbishop said in another letter.
This is the third time a San Francisco-area diocese has had to file for bankruptcy to deal with an avalanche of accusations. Earlier this year, Catholic representations in Oakland and Santa Rosa took the same route. Oakland faces 330 alleged cases of clerical pederasty, while Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, says it must settle some 150 claims filed in recent years. In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California’s largest, paid a record $660 million in compensation to victims of clerical abuse. In total, 22 dioceses have reached million-dollar out-of-court settlements with survivors.
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