The Diocese of Oakland is trying to get ahead of what appears to be around 330 looming clergy sexual abuse lawsuits, announcing they may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which critics say is just a tactic to avoid testifying and paying damages.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland had a pretty ugly run of sexual abuse of children allegations back in the early 2000s, and in 2005, they paid a $56 million settlement to 56 victims. (The settlements ranged from $200,000 to $2 million-plus, but averaged $1 million apiece.) In today’s dollars, those settlements would likely be larger. And that’s a crucial consideration, as KRON4 reports that the diocese now suspects it's facing “approximately 330” sex abuse lawsuits from victims, and announced Thursday that they may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
It is not publicly known who the alleged victims are, or when the incidents occurred. A 2019 California law called AB-218 allowed a new window for assault allegations whose statute of limitations had passed, but that law only applies specifically to “childhood sexual abuse.” And that window has already expired (it was from 2020 to December 31, 2022), but it’s fair to assume that many were filed in 2022, and are working their way through the courts now.
“Since the closing of the filing window on December 31, 2022, we have been informed there may be approximately 330 lawsuits filed against our diocese,” Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland Michael C. Barber said in a Thursday afternoon announcement. “I want to let you know the Diocese is giving strong consideration to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After much prayer and thoughtful advice, I believe bankruptcy can provide a way to support all survivors in their journey toward healing in an equitable and comprehensive way. It will also allow the diocese to reorganize our financial affairs.”
But that “financial affairs” language has survivors upset that the church may be more concerned about their finances rather than the suffering of victims.
“It’s a tactic to dissuade, stall or beat down victims and other dioceses have tried that,” Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) Northern California California Northwest leader Joey Piscitelli tells the Bay Area News Group. “If they were truly sorry for what they did, they wouldn’t pull tactics like this.”
And it may indeed be a tactic, as Chapter 11 can provide protections to limit payouts, or to prevent church higher-ups from having to testify about what they knew and when they knew it.
"If the Diocese of Oakland files for bankruptcy, all of the trials against them will immediately be frozen,” attorney for survivors Mike Reck tells KGO. “That's one of the really important powers that the bankruptcy court has that the diocese will probably value."
"I think it is highly likely that the Diocese of Oakland has been preparing for this move for some time," he adds.
And this may be a pattern we see more of. Just this past Monday, the Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with KPIX reporting the diocese “could be facing more than 200” sex abuse lawsuits.
Related: Here Are the Hundreds of SF Archdiocese Catholic Clergy Accused of Sexual Abuse [SFist]
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