Suburban NY diocese files for bankruptcy amid abuse lawsuits

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A man walks by the offices of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Rockville Centre, N.Y. The diocese filed for bankruptcy on Thursday because of financial pressure from lawsuits over past sexual abuse by clergy members. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

ROCKVILLE CENTRE, N.Y. – A Roman Catholic diocese in New York City's suburbs Thursday became the largest in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy, seeking relief from a torrent of lawsuits filed after the state suspended the statute of limitations for suing over sexual abuse by priests.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which encompasses much of Long Island and 1.4 million Catholics, said in filing for Chapter 11 protection that it will ask a bankruptcy court to put all cases on hold so that they they can be settled together — a process it says is more equitable but that victims say limits their ability to get at the truth.

“The financial burden of the litigation has been severe and only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop John Barres said in a video and letter on the diocese's website. “Our goal is to make sure that all clergy sexual abuse survivors and not just a few who were first to file lawsuits are afforded just and equitable compensation.”

More than 200 lawsuits have been brought against the diocese since the 2019 passage of a New York law that gives victims the right to sue over decades-old sexual abuse by clergy members, teachers and other adults. Previously, the statute of limitations in the most serious such cases ran out when the victim turned 23.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre fought the law in court, arguing it was unconstitutional. When a state appeals court last month refused to halt such lawsuits, the diocese said it had no choice but to file for bankruptcy.

In its filing, the diocese listed up to $500 million in estimated liabilities from lawsuits.

“What became clear was that the diocese was not going to be able to carry out its spiritual, charitable and educational missions if it were to continue to shoulder the increasingly heavy burden of litigation expenses associated with these cases,” Barres said in announcing the bankruptcy.

Jeff Anderson, a lawyer for 73 people suing the Rockville Centre Diocese over alleged abuse, slammed the bankruptcy filing as “strategic, cowardly and wholly self-serving."