SAN DIEGO – The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said Tuesday that it planned to file for bankruptcy protection to put off going to trial in more than 140 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.
In a letter posted on the diocese’s Web site, Bishop Robert Brom said the diocese made its decision because any damages awarded early in a trial could deplete “diocesan and insurance resources,” leaving nothing for other victims. He also noted the time the process could take.
Attorney Micheal Webb said the diocese planned to file for bankruptcy protection by midnight, just hours before the first trial was scheduled to go forward today in a San Diego courtroom. A Chapter 11 filing automatically halts court proceedings.
San Diego would become the fifth U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy protection. It also would become the largest, with nearly 1 million parishioners.
Brom said in his letter that the diocese would disclose the names of accused priests who officials are certain participated in abuse, and “we will verify that no known abuser is functioning in ministry.”
Diocese officials and plaintiffs’ attorneys failed to reach a settlement during two days of negotiations, wrapped up Monday, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The diocese called plaintiffs’ attorneys Tuesday morning to make a “final and best” settlement offer, Webb said. He declined to specify how much the church had offered but said it was higher than total settlements reached in other U.S. dioceses.
“When they rejected it, we were left with no choice,” Webb said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the total amount the church had offered was insufficient because San Diego has more plaintiffs than other jurisdictions.
They also accused the church of using bankruptcy as a way to keep potentially embarrassing information under wraps. By delaying civil trials, the filing prevents diocese officials from being confronted in court with potentially embarrassing facts, missteps or documents related to past handling of abusive priests.
“For three years they’ve told people they want to settle, they want to be transparent, but the moment it became clear the truth will come out through a jury trial, they sought to shut down victims’ ability to get compensated and get out the truth,” said John Manly, an attorney representing a victim scheduled for trial in April. “It’s wrong, and they’re not going to get away with this.”