Catholic Diocese of Oakland mulls bankruptcy amid 330 sexual abuse cases

SFGATE [San Francisco CA]

March 18, 2023

By Gabe Lehman

The Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which oversees 82 parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to resolve about 330 sexual abuse lawsuits, according to a Thursday letter. Church leaders believe filing for bankruptcy protection will help pay out what is sure to be a mountain of legal costs, but survivors see it as the Catholic church avoiding responsibility.

The lawsuits come after a 2018 change in California law that opened a window from 2020 to 2022 for sexual abuse victims to proceed with legal cases, no matter when the abuse took place. The Oakland Diocese website claims that all but three of the cases occurred before 2003. 

“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 so we may continue to fulfill the sacred mission entrusted to us by Christ and the Church,” wrote Bishop Michael C. Barber in the letter.

Dan McNevin, who alleges that a priest within the Oakland Diocese sexually abused him as a child, does not believe Barber and the church have the survivors’ best interests at heart. 

McNevin, who is now a representative for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Oakland, finds it hard to believe that the Oakland Diocese cannot afford to pay out the lawsuits brought against it. He pointed to the many Bay Area real estate holdings — including churches and schools — as proof that the diocese is financially viable. 

“This idea that they’re insolvent, it’s just a fiction,” McNevin said in a call with SFGATE.

In addition, McNevin said he sees the potential bankruptcy protection filing as a tactic to close the cases away from the public eye. He believes the Oakland Diocese is following a pattern well established by other Catholic institutions

In McNevin’s words, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adheres to a well-worn policy: “Don’t tell anyone, keep it hidden, refer to lawyers, fight every lawsuit to the very end and if we’re going to get exposed, declare bankruptcy so we can hide the secrets.”

Rick Simons, a Castro Valley attorney working on clergy sexual abuse lawsuits in Northern California, agreed.

“[The diocese] will do anything to get out of facing a jury in these kinds of cases,” Simons told Bay Area News Group.

“So why are they doing it? They’re trying to stave off the liability and save as much money as they can because money is much more important to them than the survivors are,” Simons said.

On its website, the diocese explains that it does not believe filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection minimizes the church’s responsibility to survivors. It notes that some survivors of sexual assault work with the church and says that “together, hand in hand, we work as advocates for victims to bring support, empowerment and hope to lives tragically altered by the debilitating legacy of clergy sexual abuse.”

Oakland is not the only California diocese reportedly facing intense financial hardship as a result of sexual abuse cases. Earlier this year, the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento announced it was on the verge of bankruptcy after more than 200 survivors opened abuse lawsuits. Bishop Jaime Soto sent a letter similar to Barber’s about the Sacramento Diocese’s financial situation. 

Dioceses in StocktonSanta Rosa and San Diego also declared or considered declaring bankruptcy.

The Oakland Diocese did not provide a timetable for when it will decide whether to go through with seeking bankruptcy protection.

McNevin is no longer a practicing Catholic, although he continued to go to church long after his abuse took place. He described episodes of getting the shakes while sitting in church in the aftermath of his assault. With that said, he hopes the bankruptcy threat will cause current Catholics to evaluate the church in light of the Oakland lawsuits.

“I do believe the power of a bankruptcy will force at least some secrets to the surface and should cause practicing Catholics to ask themselves, how did we get here?” McNevin said. “And they should begin to believe victims. When you have 330 victims in one place, four or five per parish, practicing Catholics should ask the question, how did we get here? And did anybody I love get hurt?”

Written By Gabe Lehman – Gabe Lehman is a Homepage Editor with SFGATE and can be reached at