Pending sex abuse lawsuits prompt Ogdensburg Diocese to file for bankruptcy

North Country This Week [Potsdam NY]

July 17, 2023

By Jimmy Lawton

The Ogdensburg Diocese has filed for bankruptcy, a move triggered by 124 pending lawsuits from more than 50 alleged victims who say they suffered childhood sexual abuse at the hands of clergy from the 1940s to 1990s.

The Diocese encompasses 12,036 square miles of northern New York, including Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, as well as northern Herkimer County.“This difficult yet necessary decision was made in response to lawsuits filed against the Diocese under the Child Victims Act. 124 cases are currently pending against the Diocese following implementation of the act, which allows individuals who assert that they were the victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims, regardless of when the alleged abuse took place. The claims filed against the Diocese date back decades (1940s through 1990s), prior to the institution of the Diocese’s safe environment policies and procedures,” spokeswoman Darcy Fargo said in a prepared statement.

The Diocese has been encumbered with lawsuits related to sexual abuse allegations and had acknowledged years ago that bankruptcy was being considered.

“The goal for filing a reorganization case is to resolve the legal cases in a fair and equitable manner while allowing the Diocese to continue its mission. Had the Diocese not filed for reorganization, civil actions would continue for many years, with claimants who filed the first lawsuits potentially receiving larger awards or settlements, leaving little, if any, money for the remaining claimants. Filing for reorganization does not hinder claims filed by survivors,” said Bishop LaValley. “Instead, it establishes a process for all claims to be treated fairly.”

Attorneys who represent victims of the Diocese see things differently though.

“The Diocese of Ogdensburg’s decision to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy is an unfortunate yet predictable attempt to conceal the truth about the diocese’s self-serving practices at the expense of child sexual abuse survivors,” Jeff Anderson and Associates law firm said in a join press release with LaFave, Wien & Frament, PLLC.

“The Diocese of Ogdensburg’s resolution to declare bankruptcy shows, once again, a continuity in their intentions—which are, solely and purely, in service to their own self-interest,” said attorney Cynthia LaFave. “In declaring bankruptcy, the Diocese knowingly obstructs survivors’ long-awaited opportunity to say their piece; to be heard, to be acknowledged. Make no mistake, silencing survivors is exactly what the Diocese has always done. This decision is another in a long line of decisions aimed at preserving the Diocese’s frail veneer by undermining the humanity and dignity of survivors.”

The law firms say over half of New York’s eight Catholic dioceses have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to date.

“The Diocese of Ogdensburg is running from accountability,” said attorney Jeff Anderson. “Instead of standing up for the people entrusted to their care and acknowledging the harm done to children for which they are responsible, the Diocese is taking drastic, self-serving measures in an attempt to suppress the truth,” the firms said.

Bishop LaValley however, said that the Diocese has instituted extensive policies and procedures to prevent sexual abuse.

“The procedures also ensure that allegations are responsibly and justly handled,” according to the Bishop.

“We believe that the fact that there have been no claims filed alleging abuse occurred in the last 20 years is evidence that we have made great progress and are on the right course. Nevertheless, we remain vigilant.”

The Bishop added that he is available to meet with every abuse survivor, and the Diocese continues to reach out to them with a goal of fostering reconciliation and healing for those who have been so immeasurably harmed.”

The Diocese said that prior to the implementation of the CVA, the Diocese offered assistance to survivors of abuse who made prior claims.

In 2018, as part of the Year of Mercy, diocesan officials reached out to survivors through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) seeking reconciliation with them and offering compensation for their suffering. Through the IRCP, 38 claims were resolved. An additional 14 claims were also settled outside the program.

The law firms say they have no plans to quit pushing forward.

“The survivors’ courage and strength will not be extinguished by today’s bankruptcy filing,” added attorney Taylor Stippel. “North Country survivors are resilient. The true nature of the Diocese’s dangerous patterns and practices will be revealed.”

The Diocese says no timetable has been established for when the Diocese of Ogdensburg will emerge from reorganization. Bishop LaValley indicated he would like to see the process conclude in a timely fashion.

This map shows places in the Diocese of Ogdensburg where eight priests named in the report have been assigned. In 2018 the Jeff Anderson and Associates Law firm detailed information they obtained regarding alleged sexual abuse incidents. That story can be viewed here.