Sacramento Catholic Bishop Threatening Bankruptcy; SNAP Urges Him to Reconsider
For Immediate Release: December 11, 2023
On Saturday, December 9, 2023, the Catholic bishop of Sacramento, Jaime Soto, announced his intention to file for bankruptcy in March. SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, urges Bishop Soto to reconsider this scorched earth legal tactic.
The Bishop wrote in his letter that,
It is now clear to me that the only respectful, transparent, and fair way to address the substantial number of claims by those who have been abused by clergy and other members of the Church is to seek a court-supervised reorganization. … Without such a reorganization process, it is likely that not all the abuse victim-survivors would receive a fair consideration of their claim. The funds available to settle claims could be depleted by the first few cases addressed, leaving those that follow with little or no compensation.
It is simply not true that bankruptcy is the only way to achieve a “fair consideration” of all of the survivor’s lawsuits. In the last window, universal agreements were reached between the Church, survivors, and their attorneys, without the draconian consequences that bankruptcy will bring along with it. What is also true is that victim’s settlements are normally reduced in bankruptcy.
In addition, in a bankruptcy, those who have filed lawsuits become “creditors.” The court will allow a certain period of time for other “creditors” – victims -- to come forward. However, once the bankruptcy proceeds to its conclusion, anyone abused before the filing date who did not come forward is barred from ever filing a lawsuit. This would include those who do not remember their abuse, those who do not understand the impact it has had on their life, those who are not yet ready to speak out, and – most disturbingly -- those children who are too young to understand that they needed to file a claim before the bar date.
We have seen the evidence of this in the recently closed California window. The Diocese of Stockton filed for bankruptcy relief in 2014. Lawsuits by Stockton survivors were few and far between: victims who were the subject of crimes prior to 2014 may have wanted to file a civil action, but they were barred by the bankruptcy.
In the Sacramento Diocese’s FAQ about bankruptcy, it misleadingly says, “Almost half of these involve allegations from the 1970s or earlier; more than 80 percent involve allegations from the 1980’s or earlier; and only six claims allege abuse that occurred after the diocese’s reforms and improved safeguards in 2002.”
It is dangerous and disingenuous for the Diocese to link the few numbers of more recent claims to its “reforms and improved safeguards.” The fact is that we are unlikely to hear from those victimized from 2002 and after because of delayed disclosure. Trauma-informed experts say most victims disclose between the ages of 50-70. So, accusations from 2002 will likely not hit their peak for another 20 years.
California recently adopted a law removing the civil statute of limitations for child sex crimes completely. However, for those survivors abused in Catholic institutions that see a bankruptcy to completion, the legislative intent of this reform -- to allow just compensation for life-long injuries -- will be thwarted for decades.
In addition, we know that child predators rarely, if ever stop, without outside intervention. The Catholic Church is a prime example of a religious institution that protected its perpetrators from criminal prosecution for decades. Unfortunately, SCOTUS ruled in the Stogner case that criminal statutes of limitations cannot be changed retroactively.
As a work-around to this Supreme Court ruling on child sex crimes, states like California opened civil windows to help protect today’s children by allowing victims to pursue lawsuits naming their perpetrators, despite fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. When the look-back provision was passed and the legal challenge to the window failed, Catholic dioceses then began fleeing to the protection of the bankruptcy court, again thwarting the legislative intent -- to expose the names of abusers.
Protecting other boys and girls from being abused, and learning who made the decisions that resulted in a child predator working in their parish or school is important to survivors. However, the bankruptcy courts do not normally concern themselves with either issue. While the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, agreed to release its clergy abuse files publicly as part of that bankruptcy settlement, Santa Fe is the exception rather than the rule.
It is more likely that any information uncovered in a bankruptcy proceeding will be sealed, as were documents in the Milwaukee bankruptcy in 2016. A 2018 request from the Wisconsin state attorney general to release those records to him is still being litigated. Any potential prosecutions arising out of this hidden information has been impeded by Catholic opposition to this request. We do not think it is in the public interest for information about child predators, regardless of where they hunted, to remain secret.
Moreover, while it is the Diocese of Sacramento that is filing for bankruptcy, it is likely that the conclusion of the proceeding will also grant immunity from additional lawsuits to parishes, schools, and other Catholic entities operating in the Diocese. Ironically, in their efforts to protect their assets and their secrets, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has become unlikely bedfellows with a company that contributed to the country’s current opioid crisis.
Unfortunately, the difference is that while the pharmaceutical company seems to have made chances to protect the public going forward, we can not say with any assurance that the same is true of the Catholic Church. We know that every month clergy, religious brothers and sisters, employees and volunteers, are still being arrested for crimes against today's children. Those arrests likely account for only a very small percentage of the abuse currently being perpetrated in parishes, schools, and other Catholic ministries, due to delayed disclosure.
In conclusion, this bankruptcy will have many advantages for Bishop Soto. For those who suffered from child sex crimes committed in his Diocese, there is no upside to this cruel and, in our opinion, unjustified legal tactic. SNAP believes that children, not secrets and assets, are what need to be protected.
CONTACT: Dorothy Small, SNAP Sacramento Area Leader, ([email protected], 530-908-3676), Melanie Sakoda, SNAP Survivor Support Director ([email protected], 925-708-6175), Dan McNevin, SNAP Board of Directors Treasurer ([email protected], 415-341-6417), Joey Piscitelli, SNAP Northern California ([email protected], 925-262-3699), Mike McDonnell, SNAP Interim Executive Director ([email protected], 267-261-0578), Shaun Dougherty, SNAP Board of Directors President ([email protected], 814- 341-8386)
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 35 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)