The Catholic Diocese of Oakland on Monday filed for bankruptcy after it was hit with 330 sex abuse lawsuits.
A group advocating for survivors of abuse by Catholic priests said the church’s move is a disingenuous way to avoid compensating victims.
But according to the bishop, bankruptcy will provide a fair outcome while protecting the church.
“After careful consideration of the various alternatives for providing just compensation to innocent people who were harmed, we believe this process is the best way to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for survivors,” Bishop Michael C. Barber said in a letter to parishioners. “It is important we take responsibility for the damage done so we can all move beyond this moment and provide survivors with some measure of peace. Sadly, for many, the pain caused by these horrific sins, no matter when they occurred, will never wash away, which is why we offer support to survivors and pray for their continued healing.”
Barber also addressed the victims of the abuse.
“We know the pain inflicted against our children and young people decades ago continues to cause great suffering,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorrowful about this reality and pray daily for all impacted. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, there is sin and evil in the world, even in our Church. But there is also virtue and mercy in abundance. We must address the sin and move forward as instruments of God’s mercy and holiness.”
Barber said that given the diocese’s “current financial resources,” the church “could not shoulder the burden” of litigating hundreds of cases filed under the recent California Assembly Bill 218, which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits against any institution accused of enabling abuse.
The prospect of financially crippling lawsuits has put other California dioceses to consider the same move. The Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for bankruptcy protection in March, saying it did not have money to settle more than 150 child sexual abuse lawsuits. The Sacramento and San Diego dioceses are also considering bankruptcy.
Oakland’s bankruptcy filing came as no surprise to the Survivors Network, otherwise known as SNAP, who were immediately critical of the move.
“Everything about this bankruptcy strikes us as wrong,” SNAP’s open letter states. “It is all about keeping money and secrets.”
SNAP survivors said that Oakland does not deserve to declare insolvency because the Diocese owns a $200-million Cathedral and acres of land in Piedmont, Orinda, Lafayette, and Danville.
“It is not poor, in our opinion,” SNAP said, “except perhaps in spirit and integrity.”
SNAP survivors said that this bankruptcy does not just affect those who have filed lawsuits – once the deadline for filing claims in a bankruptcy has passed, injuries inflicted before that deadline are all extinguished.
In addition to financial woes, Barber noted people aren’t going to church as much anymore, either. In Oakland, he said Mass attendance dropped 42% in 2021 from 2019 due to the pandemic and was off 46% from the five-year average.
Barber said most of the claims brought under the most recent California statute stem from allegations of sexual abuse that occurred in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ’80s by priests who are no longer active in ministry or are dead.
The Chapter 11 filing will allow the church to reorganize and use insurance coverage to settle claims with sex abuse survivors, Barber said.
Barber added that all of its Catholic schools are part of separate legal entities and therefore not included in the filing and will continue to operate as normal. Employees will be paid as usual, and their benefit programs will continue uninterrupted. Vendors will be paid for all goods and services delivered after the filing, the Diocese said.
The Diocese of Oakland serves two counties in the East Bay region, Alameda and Contra Costa, and includes approximately 550,000 Catholics in 84 parishes.
Original story on KTVU.