California friars file for bankruptcy in wake of nearly 100 cases of child sex abuse

El País [Madrid, Spain]

January 3, 2024

By Luis Pablo Beauregard

The Roman Catholic order of the Franciscans is facing 94 claims involving events that took place between 1940 and 1996. Most of the accused are now dead

The Franciscan Friars of California have joined a long list of religious orders and dioceses to file for bankruptcy to face an avalanche of legal cases involving sex abuse against minors committed decades ago. The Roman Catholic organization filed for Chapter 11 on December 31, in a restructuring that allows the organization to meet its financial obligations in the face of 94 claims of sexual abuse against its friars. The alleged crimes occurred between 1940 and 1996. The Franciscans, who announced the move this Tuesday, stated that most of the accused have died and that only six are still alive.

Provincial minister Father David Gaa, the head of the order in the United States, said the decision to file for bankruptcy seeks to ensure that the abuse survivors receive “just financial compensation.” “The care of abuse survivors is our foremost concern and has always been at the core of our response,” Gaa said in a statement. “After consulting with our legal and financial counsel, we have concluded that litigation costs and potential liability would exceed our limited financial capacity and, therefore, pursuing Chapter 11 Bankruptcy is the only viable path to ensuring just, equitable, and compassionate compensation for all abuse survivors.”

Almost all of the claims were filed in California, and nearly all are based on abuse that allegedly occurred at least 27 years ago, with several claims dating back to the 1940s, the organization notes. “Most of the friars named in the claims are deceased. Of the six living friars, all have been long-removed permanently from all public ministry and ministerial environments, and are living under strict third-party supervision,” the group said in a statement.

In 2019, California expanded the right of abuse victims to go to court to seek justice. A law passed that year set an age limit of 40 for abuse survivors to file a lawsuit. This law replaced a previous one that had set a limit of 26 years. Some psychological studies, however, indicate that it takes some victims up to 50 years to recognize the abuse they were subjected to.

In 2020, the California Legislature created a three-year window for any victim of pedophilia to seek compensation through civil courts. The window closed on December 31, the day the Franciscan Friars filed for Chapter 11. On January 1, a new state regulation came into effect that eliminates the statute of limitations for rape of minors. This regulation, however, cannot be applied to events of the past.

The statement from the Franciscan Friars of Santa Barbara, an order whose territory covers California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington, says that the bankruptcy filing will cover reparations for individuals who were abused in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. The statement noted that “bankruptcy judges can help force insurers to honor the policies they wrote, generating an overall pool of additional money to fairly compensate abuse survivors, even those whose claims date to the 1940s, 50s or 60s, when little insurance was in place and many policies can no longer be found.”

The Franciscan Friars, who are attached to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and have been present in California since at least 1769, have been plagued by cases of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. They have also taken an active role in prosecuting these crimes. When California expanded victims’ rights in 2019, the Franciscans provided 18 names, expanding a list of sexual predators that the diocese of Oakland (northern California) had compiled.

The organization claims to be more transparent about clergy sexual abuse cases than other orders. In 1992 it spoke publicly for the first time about the abuses committed by its friars in California, and “led the way for religious groups in California by settling the many cases filed in 2003, the first time the California legislature lifted the statute of limitations for filing time-barred sexual abuse claims.” Among the measures the group adopted was to make the order’s superiors available to meet with the victims and their families and apologize.

“I am deeply saddened by the sinful acts committed and the damage caused to abuse survivors — then only children — who put their trust in friars. No apology or any amount of financial compensation can reverse the harm, but perhaps abuse survivors will find some solace in knowing that we are acknowledging their pain and that they are important to us,” added Gaa in the statement.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco, responsible for 88 parishes in three California counties, declared bankruptcy in August 2023. As the Franciscans have done now, it argued that it was the only possible way to deal with 500 reports of sexual crimes perpetrated by their members between the 1960s and 1980s. The chapters of the Catholic Church in Oakland and Santa Rosa did the same months before.