San Diego Catholic Diocese Could Declare Bankruptcy to Pay Hundreds of Sex Abuse Victims

The original announcement came Thursday night in a meeting with pastors and parish officials during which Cardinal McElroy answered questions and distributed a letter that will be provided to parishioners at masses over the weekend

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego announced Friday that it may have to file for bankruptcy after roughly 400 claims were filed by alleged victims who said they were sexual abused by priests and other church members.

The earliest claim dates to 1945, with most of the events allegedly taking place 50-75 years ago, Kevin Eckery, communications director for the diocese, said at a news conference on Friday. 

Bankruptcy may be necessary in order "to provide a pathway for ensuring that the assets of the diocese will be used equitably to compensate all victims of sexual abuse," Cardinal Robert McElroy wrote in a letter expected to be shared with nearly 1.4 million diocese parishioners this weekend.

"[The diocese] may be facing a moment where the diocese enters into bankruptcy in the coming months," McElroy wrote.

McElroy's announcement was first made Thursday evening, during a meeting he led with nearly 200 diocesan representatives; an estimated 80% of pastors from the diocese were in attendance, according to Eckery.

During the meeting, McElroy distributed the letter to those in attendance and answered questions about what future plans may include.

The diocese paid out settlements to 144 claimants in 2007 totaling $198 million, which "depleted most of the assets of the diocese," McElroy said. "Even with insurance, the diocese will not be able to pay out similar sums now."

On Friday, Eckery predicted that it would cost the diocese $550 million to settle the current cases.  At this point, no cases have gone to trial, he also said, Only a handful of cases have been identified that could possibly move forward to trial, but it’s still very early in the process, he said later. Eckery said any settlements would be paid out with diocese funds and with insurance.

Concerns about funding come after the passage of Assembly Bill 218, which took effect at the start of the year. AB 218 lifted the statute of limitations for any lawsuits claiming sexual abuse of minors filed between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2022, according to the diocese.

Bankruptcy would "provide a pathway for ensuring that the assets of the diocese will be used equitably to compensate all victims of sexual abuse while continuing the ministries of the church," McElroy wrote. "It would also provide for a fund for future claimants of sexual abuse who have not filed a claim and would provide a conclusion to the tide of lawsuits covering alleged abuse as long as 75 years ago."

"One important aspect of these lawsuits is that none of them claim sexual abuse by any priest of the diocese of San Diego currently in ministry," McElroy wrote.

San Diego-based attorney Irwin Zalkin told NBC 7 in January 2020 that he planned to file 125 suits against the diocese, including a group of 20 he filed on Jan. 2, 2020.

"I'm here for all of the victims that were destroyed — they'll never get back what was taken from them," said victim Edward Ortega, who told NBC 7 at a 2020 news conference that he was sexually assaulted over a three-year period by a priest at St. Jude's Catholic Church in Southcrest when he was 11 years old.

"Regardless of the outcome this time around, we call on California Attorney General Rob Bonta of California to use the powers of his office, including subpoena power, to get to the answers and secrets that church officials are trying to keep by moving toward bankruptcy. California has the largest Catholic population in the nation. We know that secular investigations produce the most evidence in cases of sexual abuse by ordained, professed, or lay professionals employed by the Catholic church. Insolvency is yet another track for church officials to run away from the reality of abuse and revictimize those who suffered the most harm. The truth about how the abuse was tolerated, by whom, and where, as well as all other real evidence, are equally as vital to survivors and their families as reparations are; without that truth, a safe Catholic diocese in San Diego will not emerge, and these crimes will be replayed," said a release from SNAO, a support group for women and men wounded by religious and institutional authorities.

Anyone who believes they were the victim of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, church, or school staff may contact the Diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator to make a report regardless of when the abuse occurred.

In 2007, the diocese first published a list of priests who had been credibly accused of abusing minors, as part of previous bankruptcy proceedings.

"The list was split into two parts — one listing priests from the San Diego and San Bernardino dioceses, and another listing visiting priests from other dioceses and religious orders," according to the diocese. "In 1978, the Diocese of San Bernardino separated from the Diocese of San Diego. Until then, they were one diocese."

There are priests who are involved in alleged behavior who are retirees, and Eckery as asked what their responsibility would be. They don't have any money, so they won't contribute much, he said, adding that, hopefully, they are contributing prayers. And what are the next steps? More conversations with attorneys, prayer and an evaluation of what we need to do for survivors, he answered.

A copy of the current list of priests, updated Nov. 15, 2022, is available from the diocesan website.

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