After Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy, lawyers change strategy for abuse claims
By Jay Tokasz
March 2, 2020
|The late Rev. William F. White has been accused of sexually abusing children in five Child Victims Act lawsuits against the Buffalo Diocese.|
South Buffalo resident Dennis Archilla filed a childhood sex abuse lawsuit in September to expose the Buffalo Diocese for protecting a pedophile priest.
“I wanted the public to know just how deep the deception is in the Catholic Church,” Archilla said.
Archilla believes that deception continued when the diocese on Friday filed for bankruptcy – effectively bringing his and more than 250 other Child Victims Act lawsuits to a grinding halt.
“It will bury the discovery process,” said Archilla. “I think it’s a strategy on their part not just to protect their resources, but also to not get that information out to the public.”
Archilla, 45, alleges the Rev. William F.J. White molested him in 1987 when he was sixth grade student at Queen of Heaven elementary school in West Seneca.
Despite the bankruptcy, J. Michael Hayes, Archilla’s lawyer, said he thinks Archilla’s case will continue to trial.
That’s because Hayes filed two lawsuits on behalf of Archilla in State Supreme Court.
One case names the Buffalo Diocese as the lone defendant, while the second lawsuit excludes the diocese and names as defendants the parish, Queen of Heaven, and the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, which provided nuns who taught in the parish school.
While the case against the Buffalo Diocese will get transferred into bankruptcy court, Hayes said the case against the parish and the community of sisters will proceed in State Supreme Court, because those two entities have not declared bankruptcy.
Some other plaintiffs' lawyers were skeptical of the strategy of separately suing parishes, saying that while it could extend the discovery period temporarily, those parishes at some point will have the opportunity to ask the state and bankruptcy courts to stay the cases against them.
Diocese attorney Stephen Donato also said the diocese ultimately will seek an agreement with the creditors to have the actions against the parishes stayed or go to the bankruptcy judge and ask that parish, schools and other entities be protected.
The diocese, in its bankruptcy filings, disputed the idea that officials are seeking bankruptcy reorganization as a way to "shirk or avoid responsibility" for priest misconduct.
"The Diocese does not seek bankruptcy relief to hide the truth or deny any person a day in court," wrote Charles Mendolera, the diocese's executive director of financial administration.
Donato also said that federal courts allow for the possibility of broader discovery than in state courts – not less, as some lawyers and abuse survivors maintain.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger said Friday that the diocese would work with individual victims to allow them to access records pertaining to their own claims and he encouraged anyone who had been sexually abused by a Buffalo priest or diocese employee to come forward in the bankruptcy proceeding.
He stopped short of pledging to make public all diocese records involving sex abuse allegations.
Many who have sued the diocese remain skeptical.
Archilla said he hopes to prove that the diocese knew White was abusing children years before he was abused.
“Prior to 1987, he had so many complaints and it was reported so many times, and he was still allowed to be in a position where he was around kids constantly,” said Archilla. “My motivation is mainly because they covered it up for so long, prior to my abuse, and it was like the perfect storm for him to be able to get away with what he did to me and my classmate.”
White, who died in 2016, also is accused in lawsuits filed against the diocese by six other plaintiffs, including a pair of brothers who allege that the priest plied them with alcohol and drugs, forced them to have sex with each other while he watched, then paid them not to talk about it.
Hayes also filed two separate Child Victims Act lawsuits on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff who alleged he was abused by the Rev. Norbert F. Orsolits. The first case names the diocese as the lone defendant, and the second case names as defendants Orsolits, St. James Parish and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Depew and Catholic Charities of Buffalo.
The suit claims that Orsolits was an associate pastor at St. James and worked in a drug counseling and GED program at Catholic Charities, when he allegedly molested the plaintiff in the early to mid-1970s. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish is named in the lawsuit because it was formed in 2009 out of the merger of multiple parishes, including St. James, and thus legally assumed the liabilities of the merged parishes.
So far, Hayes and Kevin Stocker are the only attorneys who have filed multiple Child Victims Act cases against different defendants on behalf of the same plaintiffs. In one filing on behalf of 31 plaintiffs, Stocker named only the Diocese of Buffalo as defendant. Then, in a separate filing for the same plaintiffs, he named 53 defendants, but not the Diocese of Buffalo.
"If the diocese files for bankruptcy, we can go forward with the other one," he said. "That was just a strategy on our end."
Stocker said he had expected the diocese to file for Chapter 11 because "I don't think they want the full story to come out. It is too damaging to their brand."
Hayes said he was convinced from the outset that the diocese would file for bankruptcy, a process that he said could take years and result in “nickels on the dollar” for victims of abuse who sued.
“I don’t have a great deal of comfort and confidence in some administrative trustee from wherever to administer all these cases. I feel a lot more comfortable with a jury, and presenting all my proof, as opposed to some guy having mountains of paperwork and then go allocate and calculate among the assets and peoples’ proportionate share. I would just as soon get a verdict and then execute,” Hayes said.
Decades ago, when much of the clergy sex abuse was alleged to have happened, most parishes had their own separate liability insurance policies, he said. Hayes said he believes the parish insurance policies would have to cover for the parish’s liability in an abuse case, because the parish has at least “some responsibility” for any employees, volunteers and agents working on its behalf, “even though the ultimate boss may be the diocese.”
Hayes predicted his cases against entities other than the diocese would be adjudicated far more quickly than a case in bankruptcy court.
“That would take years, just to figure out what the assets are, what the claims are,” he said. “If I’ve got cases that are separated or segregated, I can get them in front of a jury and get this thing done and get my client some finality and closure.”