San Francisco Chronicle

Citing sex-abuse suits, Santa Rosa Diocese seeks bankruptcy

- By Sam Whiting Reach Sam Whiting: swhiting@sfchronicl­

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for bankruptcy protection this week, saying it does not have the money to settle more than 150 child sexual abuse lawsuits filed against it over the past three years. The move prompted victim advocates to say the diocese is using bankruptcy rules to conceal the scope of clergy abuse.

A state law passed in 2019 temporaril­y lifted the statute of limitation­s on civil lawsuits against any institutio­n accused of enabling abuse. In its Chapter 11 filing Monday, the diocese noted that at least 160 claims were filed before the window was closed in 2022. These cases are on top of nearly $35 million already paid out by the diocese and its insurance carriers to settle claims of sexual abuse.

“Now, facing at least 160 new cases, with excess property depleted, with insurance for many of the years either non-existent or exhausted it is impossible to see any way forward without recourse to the bankruptcy protection­s our Country makes available,” the Diocese said in a statement Friday attributed to Bishop Robert F. Vasa.

“A bankruptcy allows the Diocese to deal with all these issues collective­ly rather than one at a time. At the same time, the process provides a way for the Diocese to continue the various charitable ministries in which it is engaged.”

The statement noted that the only corporate entity subject to the bankruptcy filing is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Santa Rosa. This exempts all of the individual parish churches and schools within a jurisdicti­on that includes Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, which are run by separate civil corporatio­ns and entities. The filing Monday was made in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of California.

Victim advocates disputed the diocese’s claims.

“The bankruptcy filing is a cynical ploy to keep their secrets and their money safe, and to shortchang­e survivors,” said Dan McNevin, leader of the Oakland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “Most of the abuse occurred in the parishes and in the schools, and for them to say those assets are offlimits is an insult to those who were harmed in those places.”

McNevin, who claims abuse by a parish priest when he was an altar boy at a Catholic Church in the Fremont area, said the filing exempts some 50 school campuses and campground­s, involving real estate assets that the diocese has put out of the reach of plaintiffs.

He also said records are now out of the reach of plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“This prevents access to files that would demonstrat­e a systemic cover-up,” he said.

Abuse allegation­s have swirled in the diocese for decades, and Vasa noted that more than 115 of the current cases against the diocese date back more than 30 years.

According to Vasa’s statement, the Office of the Bishop adheres to a Diocesan Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth put in place 20 years ago.

At that time, Vasa said, the diocese faced a similar situation involving fewer abuse cases. The diocese paid $12 million to settle those claims, and insurance contribute­d an additional $19 million, he said. Since then, the diocese has spent an additional $4 million on individual settlement­s, he added.

“We are deeply saddened that so many have endured abuse in the past and that the scourge of child sexual abuse is a part of our diocesan history,” the statement read. “The present action of the Diocese is necessary and through this process we hope to provide for those who have come forward and who are yet to come forward at least some compensati­on for the harms they have endured.”

The Diocese of Santa Rosa includes a Catholic population of about 178,000 people, according to its website.

Rick Simons, a Castro Valley plaintiff attorney for 220 cases against the Diocese of Santa Rosa and other Catholic defendants, said the bankruptcy filing is all about “hiding and transferri­ng assets the same way they spent decades hiding and transferri­ng pedophile priests.”

There are as many as 25 defendants, he said, adding that this round of cases could be settled for in excess of what the cases of 2003 were settled for.

“There are many more victims now,” he said. “More people are coming forward now than there were 20 years ago.”

 ?? Ramin Rahimian/Special to The Chronicle ?? Bishop Robert F. Vasa said the Diocese of Santa Rosa doesn’t see a way forward to settle the lawsuits without bankruptcy.
Ramin Rahimian/Special to The Chronicle Bishop Robert F. Vasa said the Diocese of Santa Rosa doesn’t see a way forward to settle the lawsuits without bankruptcy.

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