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US diocese facing abuse claims seeks bankruptcy protection

Diocese of Santa Rosa says decision made necessary due to the 'overwhelming number of sexual abuse lawsuits'

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa. (Photo: KSRO.com)

Published: December 07, 2022 06:08 AM GMT

Updated: December 07, 2022 06:18 AM GMT

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Santa Rosa announced Dec. 2 that the diocese expects to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because it faces more than 130 new claims of sex abuse dating from 1962 to the present, with "a vast majority of the cases" dating to the 1970s and 1980s.

The diocesan attorneys are expected to file Chapter 11 after Dec. 31 and before March 1, he said in a statement.

"After months of careful and prayerful consideration" and consultation with the priests of the diocese, the Diocesan Finance Council and professionals retained by the diocese," Bishop Vasa said, "it has become clear to me that it is necessary" for the diocese to take this action.

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"This decision was made necessary due to the overwhelming number of sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the diocese after the statute of limitations was lifted for a three-year 'window,'" he said.

In 2019, state legislators passed the California Child Victims Act. It took effect Jan. 1, 2020, opening a three-year "look back window" to allow survivors of sexual abuse or assault to bring both civil and criminal lawsuits at any age and no matter when the abuse happened, even if it happened decades ago. The window ends Dec. 31.

"Our diocese joins a growing list of dioceses in the United States to make such a (Chapter 11) filing," Bishop Vasa noted. "In many ways, this is not a freely chosen decision. It is the inevitable result of an insurmountable number of claims."

According to the website of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America in Washington, 11 dioceses are currently in the bankruptcy process and 16 have emerged from bankruptcy, including the California dioceses of Stockton and San Diego. The project's website is https://catholicproject.catholic.edu/bankruptcy-information.

Filing for Chapter 11 will freeze the new claims of abuse the Santa Rosa Diocese is facing.

Bishop Vasa said he is convinced "that choosing this path will allow us to achieve two very important goals."

"First, it will provide a process to carefully evaluate and compensate, as fairly as possible, those who have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse," he said.

Chapter 11 "is a process designed to bring all parties together in one place to resolve difficult claims fairly and finally, with the supervision of the bankruptcy court," he explained. "A bankruptcy allows the diocese to deal with all these issues collectively rather than one at a time."

Second, the process "will provide a way for the diocese to continue the various charitable ministries in which it is engaged," the bishop said.

He emphasized that "it is important to remember that the only entity filing for bankruptcy protection is the corporation sole known legally as the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Rosa."

"The parishes and Catholic schools within our diocese are separate civil corporations or separate ecclesial entities and should not be parties to this filing," Bishop Vasa explained.

"There are many matters to be discerned by the bankruptcy court and so absolute certainty about the degree of participation by any other entities such as parishes and schools will be determined in the course of the proceedings," he added.

The diocese has 41 parishes and 22 missions. There are five diocesan high schools and 10 elementary schools.

"Since we began discussing this possibility more than a year ago, I have been moved by the understanding, patience and support expressed by the clergy and by the various people in the church with whom I have previously shared this information," he added. "I am deeply grateful."

The Diocese of Santa Rosa was established Feb. 21, 1962. Drawn from portions of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the Diocese of Sacramento, the diocese is comprised of six northern counties of California.

It has a Catholic population of 178,443 out of a general population of in an area population of 948,769 in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Demographically, it is the smallest of California's Catholic dioceses. It is "very diverse" and "geographically large," covering 11,711 square miles, as the diocesan website points out.

According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat daily newspaper, the Santa Rosa Diocese has already paid about $33 million in settlements related to the clergy abuse scandal that erupted in the early 1990s.

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