Clergy abuse survivors group seeking investigation of Catholic bankruptcies by California AG

Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]

March 17, 2023

By Mary Callahan

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests challenge bankruptcy filing by Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese and plan to ask Attorney General to investigate.

The national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests wants Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the bankruptcy proceedings launched this week by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa and perhaps Oakland as well.

The survivors’ group, known as SNAP, decided to act in the wake of the Oakland bishop’s announcement Thursday that he was “giving strong consideration” to filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. That announcement came just four days after Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa submitted his own bankruptcy petition to the court.

It’s not clear exactly what role Bonta might play as the highest ranking state law enforcement officer. The bankruptcy case, filed Monday, is proceeding in federal bankruptcy court, outside his jurisdiction.

Vasa said the bankruptcy court and the U.S. Trustee assigned to the case will run their own thorough investigations in the course of processing the diocese’s case.

But SNAP is drafting a letter that Executive Director Zach Hiner said calls on Bonta “to explore any option at his disposal that would help discern whether or not these bankruptcies are happening in good faith.”

In particular the group objects to the fact that filing for bankruptcy halts hundreds of pending lawsuits filed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse and, thus, prevents plaintiffs and their lawyers from questioning church officials and other witnesses about the manner in which abusive priests were assigned and supervised.

That conflicts with a provision in state law that allows for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to win triple damages in cases where defendants concealed or covered up sexual abuse, said Dand McNevin, SNAP treasurer and a leader in the Bay Area.

“ (Assembly Bill)-218 was to allow the survivor to explore and find those facts and then those facts become public, and in searching out these complicities they identify who did the covering up,” McNevin said. “It’s a really important part of transparency. This bankruptcy stuff shuts down the discovery process. It wipes out that transparency.”

Once a diocesan bankruptcy case is settled it also means any survivors who were not yet emotionally strong enough or ready to come forward with claims are permanently barred from seeking compensation for their suffering in the future, SNAP members said.

A study by Child USA reports the average age at the time of reporting child sex abuse is 52, well above the 40-year-old limit in current state law and one reason advocates are seeking elimination of a statute of limitations. (A new bill that would do just that, AB-452, was introduced in the State Assembly last month.)

That delayed reporting, said McNevin, means people abused in the past four decades, even those under age 40 when the bankruptcy settles, will be prohibited from filing a case.

Vasa said there has been a high degree of publicity around the clergy abuse scandal and what have now been two “look-back” windows allowing older cases to be filed.

He said there will be more as the bankruptcy proceeds and participants are “literally shaking all the trees” to find any additional survivors who want to offer “proofs of claim” that entitle them to part of the settlement fund.

In addition, most creditor committees organized for other, similar bankruptcies have set aside at least some funds for future claimants, as well, he said.

The Attorney General’s Office has previously demonstrated its interest in the Catholic clergy scandal in 2019 when then Attorney General Xavier Becerra subpoenaed records from six of 12 California dioceses, including Santa Rosa’s, to ensure allegations of sexual misconduct were being properly reported.

Vasa said then that the appropriate records were supplied. Many thought there might be a full report released similar to what had occurred in other states, like Pennsylvania, though none was.

“I would think whatever action the attorney general feels needs to be taken we will respond to the attorney general in the way we have responded before,” he said Friday.

At least 32 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States and its territories to have sought bankruptcy protection amid the clergy abuse scandal since 2004. Among them was the Diocese of Albany, New York, which filed Wednesday.

Most, like Santa Rosa, separately incorporated church parishes in advance in what plaintiff’s attorneys view as “a shell game” cynically designed to shelter assets from survivors seeking compensation, though bishops say it merely aligns their legal standing with church law and the reality of their financial independence.

Attorneys for survivors also have chastised the church for avoiding public exposure of wrongdoing through bankruptcy court, though the Santa Rosa Diocese, at least, says it turned over everything it had long ago.MOST POPULAR

But critics say that’s untrue.

“In the vast majority (of cases) we have zero documents from them, so this seems to me to be an intentional misrepresentation of the facts and of the circumstances for the purposes of misleading the public and the diocese parishioners,” said Jennifer Stein, and attorney with Anderson & Associates. ”It simply is not true.”

Bankruptcy is attractive to dioceses, SNAP says, because it allows bishops to “artificially wipe their slate clean without ever having to admit what they did.”

The moves comes as Catholic Dioceses around California are confronting the reality of thousands of child sex abuse cases filed during a three-year window in which the statute of limitations for such cases was waived. The window, authorized by AB-218, closed Dec. 31.

Attorneys and Superior Court staffs in Alameda, Los Angeles and San Diego counties are still processing cases in a coordinated, unified case load, but so far at least 1,566 Northern California cases have been filed, including 222 in which the Santa Rosa Diocese is a defendant or co-defendant.

Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber told parishioners Thursday that about 330 cases have been filed against his diocese.

“I want to let you know the Diocese is giving strong consideration to filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy,” Barber wrote to church members. “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.”

Vasa made similar comments last week when announcing the Santa Rosa Diocese would file bankruptcy. He cited claims that would overwhelm the diocese’s limited financial resources. The diocese already has spent at least $16 million toward $35 million in survivor settlements in the past 20 years or so. Insurance providers put $19 millions toward the claims, and insurance is now limited or exhausted for some years, the diocese says.

In its initial bankruptcy petition, the diocese says remaining assets range between $10 million and $50 million.

California’s attorney general still has an online form through which complaints of clergy abuse can be made survivors, witnesses or attorneys. It is located at Reports also can be made to

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.