The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester has filed for bankruptcy, as it struggles to cope with a wave of clergy sexual abuse lawsuits unleashed by the New York Child Victims Act.
The New York Child Victims Act became law in February and granted child sex abuse survivors more time to file civil lawsuits and criminal charges against perpetrators, as well as any public or private institutions that protected abuses or covered-up their misconduct. The law included, among other things, a one-year window that allows adult to survivors to pursue decades-old civil claims that would otherwise be time-barred by the state’s statute of limitations.
That window opened on August 14th, and since then, the Rochester Catholic Diocese has been named in 45 new clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. According to last Thursday’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, “various sex abuse claimants” account for 264 of the diocese’s creditors. Prior to the bankruptcy, the Rochester diocese had already paid out $4.27 million to abuse victims.
The bankruptcy stops all legal actions and prevents the collection of debts while the Rochester Catholic Diocese works out a reorganization plan.
“Had the Diocese not filed under Chapter 11, it would face multiple civil actions, a slow, unpredictable and costly process that would require years of court involvement and those claimants who filed suits first would receive all available funds to pay victims,” Bishop Salvatore Mantano wrote in a letter sent to church members last week. “As a result, later claimants would receive nothing. Most importantly, such lengthy proceedings delay justice for the victims and only prolong their pain and suffering.”
According to USA Today, the Rochester Catholic Diocese is the first in New York and the 20th nationwide to seek bankruptcy protection because of a clergy abuse scandal that’s plagued the church for decades.
In media interviews, several victims’ attorneys speculated that the bankruptcy was an attempt to evade the truth, as the filing stops discovery proceedings and prevents clergy sexual abuse lawsuits from going to trial. There’s also a chance that abuse survivors will have much less time to file new claims against the Rochester Catholic Diocese, as bankruptcy courts often set strict deadlines for bringing new legal action against defendants. Plaintiffs would need to clear a high bar to pursue any claims filed after a court-imposed deadline, regardless of those set forth in the New York Child Victims Act.
“I know some people are sitting on it right now, and a lot of survivors are thinking, ‘Do I really want to go through this process? … I have a year,” one attorney told the Albany Times Union. “I think there’s the potential (that) with bankruptcies, their timeline could get shorter.”