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Catholic Archdioceses in California file for bankruptcy amid clergy sex abuse claims

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco filed for bankruptcy protection. Here in California, it joins the Diocese of Oakland and the Diocese of Santa Rosa, which also filed for Chapter 11 protection earlier this year. And the Diocese of San Diego says it plans to file later this year. The church says these moves are because of an overwhelming number of claims of clergy sex abuse. Joining me now is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Hi, Jason.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: OK, so three bankruptcy filings here in California alone within just a few months, another one likely on the way. What is going on here?

DEROSE: Well, the short answer is the #MeToo movement. Back in 2019, the California legislature passed a law that created a special window to bring older abuse claims outside the normal statute of limitations. Now, this window, which closed at the end of last year, was in response to the #MeToo movement, and it provided an opportunity for older survivors of clergy sex abuse to bring claims, too. And similar windows were opened in several other states as well, including New York and Louisiana.

CHANG: OK, so survivors brought legal claims.

DEROSE: A lot of claims. The Archdiocese of San Francisco says that it's now facing more than 500 civil suits alleging clergy sex abuse.

CHANG: Wow.

DEROSE: And in a press release, the church says it's filing for Chapter 11 to halt the legal actions while it figures out how to pay for these abuse claims. As you know, bankruptcy is a way for the church to avoid more than 500 individual trials, which would be extremely expensive. And settlements are usually dramatically lower than what courts might award in monetary damages. But critics of this move say because bankruptcy stops the legal discovery process, that means we may never know the full truth of what happened in these cases.

CHANG: Exactly. But let me ask you, Jason - it's been more than - what? - two decades since stories broke about widespread clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Why are we still hearing about it so many years later?

DEROSE: Right. Remember; there was that grand jury abuse investigation report out of Illinois earlier this year. There was the one in Pennsylvania in 2018. The answer is the more investigations, the more discoveries of abuse. Now, the San Francisco archdiocese says most of the claims brought recently are for abuse that allegedly took place more than 30 years ago and involve priests who are now dead or no longer in ministry. And the church says it mostly sees older abuse cases because it's put better safeguards in place.

CHANG: Wait. Is that true? Are we seeing fewer cases of recent abuse?

DEROSE: Well, now, the advocacy group CHILD USA takes the church to task for relying on this idea that there are fewer recent cases of abuse because of something called delayed disclosure. The University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton is founder and CEO of CHILD USA, and she says we'll have to wait decades to know about abuse happening to children today.

MARCI HAMILTON: Victims, on average, don't come forward until they are around 50 years old. So when the bishops are trying to say that this is all in the past, it's way behind us and we have completely cleaned house, the truth is that's a lie.

DEROSE: Now, in a peer-reviewed study of abuse prevention measures in place around the country, CHILD USA found not one diocese scored above 50% compliance with best practices - not one. Those are measures like never allowing a child to be alone in a room with an adult or thorough background checks on clergy. And findings like that mean that states like California might in the future again open a window to the statute of limitations so that abuse survivors ready to come forward then could try to seek some measure of justice.

CHANG: That is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Thank you so much, Jason.

DEROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST. VINCENT SONG, "NEW YORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
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