Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday due to sex abuse claims

Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]

March 10, 2023

By Mary Callahan

Faced with more than 200 new legal claims over childhood sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, automatically freezing all lawsuits so they can be settled through federal bankruptcy court.

The move, forecast in advance by Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa last December, was announced Friday in a new release from the bishop reaffirming his belief he had no other choice given what he has called an “insurmountable number of claims” and too few financial resources to satisfy them individually.

That means the Santa Rosa Diocese will not face trial in any of what are currently 222 lawsuits involving priests and others at church-related institutions, said East Bay attorney Rick Simons. Simons is liaison counsel for all Northern California clergy abuse cases filed during a 3-year window waiving statute of limitations on child sex-abuse cases.

Instead of individual trials, the diocese, plaintiffs’ lawyers, insurance company representatives and a mediation judge will spend the next few years establishing exactly how many and what type of claims exist and what assets the diocese has at its disposal. Finally, a settlement fund will be established and allocated to the plaintiffs as agreed by the parties.

“While I have been anticipating this action for more than a full year, it is most distressing to have the duty of actually proceeding with this filing,” Vasa wrote in the news release. “Nevertheless, I remain convinced that it is a necessary step for the Diocese and the only way to resolve the claims which have been presented against it.“

Two other California bishops, in San Diego and Sacramento, also have announced recently they may seek bankruptcy protection due to hundreds of claims filed during the look-back window that closed at the turn of the new year. At least 32 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States and its territories have sought bankruptcy protection since 2004.

The Santa Rosa Diocese, which runs from Petaluma to the Oregon border, claims more than 178,000 parishioners in 41 parishes and was embroiled early in the clergy abuse scandal that erupted around the nation and the world, beginning in the 1990s.

Vasa, in the news release, said a similar, one-year look-back window in 2003 resulted in fewer cases but still forced the diocese to sell property to cover its share of $31 million in settlements, $19 million of which came from insurance. An additional $4 million in individual settlements has been paid since.

Bankruptcy – PRESS RELEASE and Q & A.pdf

While Vasa said the number of new claims was “at least 160” and possibly more than 200, Simons, the liaison attorney, said the latest number was 222.,

In all, 1,566 claims have been added to the Northern California caseload so far, Simons said. Similar unified case loads are being processed through courts in San Diego and Los Angeles, as well.

Vasa pointed out that only the diocese, known legally as a “corporation sole,” is seeking bankruptcy protection. He said individual parishes and Catholic schools are separate civil corporations and ecclesial entities, though the bankruptcy court will determine “the degree of participation by any other entities such as parishes and schools” in the proceedings.

In a series of questions and answers prepared for parishioners, Vasa said schools are not expected to close. He also said discrete funds like those raised for the Annual Ministry Appeal and those deposited with the Catholic Community Foundation are held in trust for special purposes and can’t be designated by the diocese for use in settling cases.

Catholic Charities, a significant provider of shelter and housing services for people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County, as well as a host of other charitable social services, is financially separate from the diocese and should not be affected, he said.

Attorneys for child abuse survivors describe the bankruptcy and incorporation of individual parishes as part of cynical playbook intended to try to wall off church assets that remain under the bishop’s control and to avoid sworn depositions that might expose additional liability by the church.

“Their position that the parishes are separate entities is a fiction, which is, of course, a fiction right out of the Conference of Bishops,” Simons said.

In San Diego last month, a lawyer for multiple plaintiff survivors sued the San Diego bishop and the parishes in the diocese, alleging assets had been transferred fraudulently to the parish corporations to avoid paying adequate settlements in pending lawsuits.

The diocese has opened a new landing page on its website for updates on the bankruptcy. It is located at

This is a developing story. Check back for more.

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