Over 200 lawsuits alleging past abuse brought against Sacramento Diocese

CBS News [New York NY]

February 27, 2023

By Andrew Haubner

The Sacramento Diocese is facing possible bankruptcy after a staggering number of lawsuits were filed alleging sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The alleged events go back decades.

Dorothy Small is a survivor, an advocate, and, through it all, still an ardent practicing Catholic.

“The most important asset in the institution are its people,” Small says. “I’m for God and I am for what it stands for. But even God is being abused. Because they represent God himself. And that doesn’t work.”

Small, who herself is a survivor of abuse at the hands of a clergy member, now volunteers her time as an advocate with the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, to help those who are just finding the courage to come forward. 

“If they have to liquidate assets, so be it,” says Small of the various Dioceses being hit with multiple lawsuits. “But provide immediate protection for the flock. Do due diligence. Do the right thing.”  

A three-year window has just ended in California. From Dec. 31, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2022, the state would hear suits filed that allege sexual abuse by the Catholic church regardless of if the statute of limitations had run out. It resulted in thousands of new cases across California. In Sacramento alone, the Diocese sent out a letter to their congregation stating they had received over 200 filings alone. Eighty percent of the allegations relate to claims from 1980 or earlier but five of those claims come after 2002 when the Diocese instituted reforms and improved safeguards. 

“This financial challenge is unlike anything we have faced before,” Sacramento Diocese Bishop Jaime Soto said in a taped statement to his parishioners. “I must consider what options are available to us, should the diocese become insolvent.” 

CBS13 reached out to the Diocese and was told that there has not been a bankruptcy filing but as the process plays out over the next couple of months that it very well may be on the table. Other regions of the state, such as the Diocese of San Diego, say they may file as well. Melanie Sakoda, a survivor support coordinator with SNAP, says that bankruptcies can serve another goal. 

“My personal feeling… [is] part of it is to protect their assets is they don’t want the parishioners and the public to know the full extent of the damage that they created,” Sakoda says. “Most of the survivors are really looking to find out what happened to them, who all was involved, who knew. How long had they known about their abuser? When the civil process is halted by a bankruptcy proceeding…that stops too.”

Bishop Soto made a point within his statement to his congregation to direct the ire towards the perpetrators of the crimes rather than the survivors themselves. 

“The situation we face is due to the sins of our church, not to victim-survivors seeking justice and healing,” Soto said. “The relentlessness of the pain and suffering of these victims must be matched by the relentlessness of our prayers for their healing and by our efforts to never again allow these kinds of sexual abuse to occur in the church.”

Small and Sakoda conclude by saying the focus shouldn’t be on the financial challenges that lie ahead. Instead, the energy and effort should be put towards the survivors and the hope for accountability from the clergy. 

“I’m sorry that it’s gonna cost them,” Small says. “They have to dig deep. But that shouldn’t be the focus.”

“It could have been prevented if the church had reported the crimes that were happening when they were happening when they found out about them and removed these people from a position of authority,” Sakoda follows up. “They didn’t do that.”

Andrew Haubner joins the CBS13 team after spending the last four years running the sports department at KEZI-TV in Eugene, Oregon.