Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese files for bankruptcy citing child sexual abuse cases

KGO-TV, ABC-7 [San Francisco CA]

March 13, 2023

By Dan Noyes

The Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for bankruptcy Monday, citing new lawsuits from more than 200 survivors of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

ABC7 News spoke with Santa Rosa’s bishop but also to survivors and their attorneys who believe the church is trying to avoid responsibility for horrific abuse by priests.

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In this petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed this morning, the Diocese of Santa Rosa estimates its assets between $10 and $50 million, and its liabilities to be the same because of a flood of new lawsuits from survivors of clergy sexual abuse. ABC7’s I-Team reporter Dan Noyes spoke with Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa.

Noyes: “Why is bankruptcy necessary?”

Bishop Vasa: “Well, when the perceived claims against an entity exceed that entity’s ability to generate the capital to pay those claims, I don’t see any other option.”

The I-Team first uncovered cases of child sexual abuse by priests there in 1994. Father Austin Peter Keegan was working in an orphanage in Mexico after abusing children from the Santa Rosa Diocese.

Noyes: “Have you ever had any physical contact with them?”

Father Keegan: “The same physical contact I’ll have with you, ok? (taps Dan’s elbows) Something like that. No.”

RELATED: Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa releases names of 39 accused of child sexual abuse

The next year, Father Gary Timmons received an 8-year prison sentence after our investigation into the crimes he committed at a summer camp in the Mendocino wilderness.

Noyes was there for his arrest in Chicago, asking, “What do you say to all those young men now?”

Now, after a state law opened a three-year window for victims to sue, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred, the Santa Rosa Diocese faces more than 200 new lawsuits.

“I say to all those who are survivors throughout the whole state of California, you know, you are being heard and we do have compassion for you. But we also have limitations in terms of the assets that I as a bishop have the right to distribute,” said Bishop Vasa.

We asked attorney Joe George Junior, who represents dozens of those survivors, about the bankruptcy. He said, “This is another way for the diocese to avoid responsibility and do the right thing by survivors.”

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In 2016, the Diocese of Santa Rosa made their parishes and schools separate corporations and now claims that they should not be part of this bankruptcy filing. George argues, “One of the things they’re trying to do, it’s known to everyone is to shield their dollars, whether it’s cash, real property, pledges, shield from who? From survivors.”

Noyes: “There is a real feeling that this is about protecting the church’s assets and not doing the right thing. How do you respond to that?”

Bishop Vasa: “That’s the reason why the bankruptcy offers an objective look, because basically, the diocese or any entity in bankruptcy, turns over the books and says, here’s our status. Here’s everything that we have attachments to and take a look at it.”

Dan McNevin from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests tells us, “I just think it’s a travesty,” and that bankruptcy will be another barrier to discovering the truth. “If they succeed, they’ll limit what survivors can receive and compensation and freeze the files that are so important to understanding what went on and what still may be going on.”

That’s going to be a crucial part of the bankruptcy case – can the diocese shield the assets of parishes and schools, or will those contribute to the pot of money that will go to more than 200 survivors?