The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, citing unknown millions of dollars in anticipated liabilities related to pending child sex abuse claims filed in court over the past three years.
The church claims unidentified assets between $10 million and $50 million. It also estimated liabilities in the same range.
But with at least 222 lawsuits pending in which the diocese is named a defendant or co-defendant, at least one attorney involved with numerous cases said $50 million would fall short in addressing them.
"This is a bare bones court filing that telegraphs both the diocese lack of empathy and understanding of number of survivors and depth of trauma caused by childhood sexual abuse," said Mike Reck, a West Coast attorney for Minnesota-based Anderson & Associates, a national firm engaged in child sexual abuse litigation. "These are not just financial debts. This case is about childhoods crushed."
Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa announced the diocese's plan to seek bankruptcy protection in December, amid mounting lawsuits filed during a three-year window in which the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims had been waived.
At least 1,566 cases are now pending in the Alameda County Superior Court, where all Northern California clergy cases are being coordinated through a unified case load. Similar coordinated efforts are proceeding in San Diego and Los Angeles courts.
Bishops for both the San Diego Diocese, facing more than 400 cases, and the Sacramento Diocese, facing more than 200, have signaled they also are likely to file for bankruptcy protection.
Attorneys representing numerous plaintiffs in these cases argue the Santa Rosa Diocese, like most others, have systematically worked to reduce access to assets the bishops control by separately incorporating church parishes and other entities and funneling money into endowments and foundations.
But that approach has not been fully tested in court, said Mike Finnegan, another attorney with Anderson & Associates, and many attorneys will be challenging the assertion that hose are not diocesan assets.
"The parishes are controlled by the bishop, hard stop," Finnegan said. "They have a bunch of legal entities that they try to create that makes it harder for survivors to collect against that money. But the absolute truth (is) it's always the bishop that is in control."
Six survivors, listed as "John Does," are included on a list of the Santa Rosa Diocese 20 creditors holding the largest unsecured claims.
Topping the list is the Archdiocese of San Francisco, to which the Santa Rosa diocese owes a debt of $1,410,000.
Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa said it was among several loans made by other dioceses in 1999, as the clergy abuse scandal took its toll. He said the Santa Rosa Diocese has worked to pay them back over the past 10 years or more, but still owes San Francisco, even though it and other diocese "graciously" forgave the interest.
The Santa Rosa Diocese has paid out at least $35 million in settlements for clergy abuse claims since the 1990s, $19 million of it covered by insurance.
Additional creditors include things like printers, Pacific Gas & Electric and FedEx.