Oakland Diocese is considering bankruptcy amid 330 sexual abuse cases

The Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which oversees 82 parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to resolve about 330 sexual abuse lawsuits, according to a Thursday letter. Church leaders believe filing for bankruptcy protection will help pay what is sure to be a mountain of legal costs, but survivors see it as the Catholic Church shirking responsibility.

The lawsuits follow a 2018 change in California law that opened a window from 2020 to 2022 for sexual assault victims to pursue lawsuits, regardless of when the assault took place. The Oakland Diocese website claims that all but three of the cases occurred before 2003.

“After much prayer and thoughtful counsel, I believe that bankruptcy can provide a way to support all survivors in their journey toward healing in a fair and comprehensive manner. It will also allow the Diocese to reorganize our financial affairs so that we can continue to fulfill the sacred the mission entrusted to us by Christ and the Church,” Bishop Michael C. Barber wrote in the letter.

Dan McNevin, who claims a priest in the Diocese of Oakland sexually abused him as a child, doesn’t think Barber and the church have the survivors’ best interests at heart.

McNevin, who is now a representative of the Survivors Network for those abused by priests in Oakland, finds it hard to believe that the Oakland Diocese cannot afford to pay out the lawsuits filed against it. He pointed to the many real estate holdings in the Bay Area — including churches and schools — as evidence that the diocese is financially viable.

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“This idea that they’re insolvent, that’s just a fiction,” McNevin said in a conversation with SFGATE.

In addition, McNevin said he sees the potential bankruptcy protection as a tactic to shut the cases away from the public. He believes the Diocese of Oakland is following a pattern well established by other Catholic institutions.

In McNevin’s words, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops maintains a worn-out policy: “Don’t tell anyone, keep it hidden, refer to lawyers, fight every lawsuit to the end and if we’re going to be exposed, declare bankruptcy so we can hide the secrets.”

Rick Simons, a Castro Valley attorney who works on priest sexual abuse lawsuits in Northern California, agreed.

“[The diocese] will do anything to avoid facing a jury in such cases, says Simons to the Bay Area News Group.

“So why do they do it? They try to avoid liability and save as much money as they can because money is much more important to them than the survivors are, Simons said.

On its website, the diocese explains that it does not believe that filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection minimizes the church’s responsibility towards survivors. It notes that some sexual abuse survivors are working with the church and says that “together, hand in hand, we work as victim advocates to bring support, empowerment and hope to lives tragically changed by the debilitating legacy of priest sexual abuse .”

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Oakland is not the only diocese in California reportedly facing intense financial hardship as a result of sexual abuse cases. Earlier this year, the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento announced it was on the brink of bankruptcy after more than 200 survivors filed abuse lawsuits. Bishop Jaime Soto sent a letter similar to Barber’s about the Sacramento Diocese’s financial situation.

The dioceses of Stockton, Santa Rosa and San Diego also declared or were considering declaring bankruptcy.

The Oakland Diocese did not provide a timetable for when it will decide whether to proceed with seeking bankruptcy protection.

McNevin is no longer a practicing Catholic, although he continued to attend church long after his abuse took place. He described episodes where he was shaken while sitting in church in the aftermath of his abuse. With that said, he hopes the threat of bankruptcy will prompt current Catholics to consider the church in light of the Oakland lawsuits.

“I think the power of a bankruptcy will force at least some secrets to the surface and should make practicing Catholics ask themselves, how did we get here?” McNevin said. “And they should start believing in victims. When you have 330 victims in one place, four or five per parish, practicing Catholics should ask the question, how did we get here? And was someone I love hurt?”

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