San Diego Diocese files for bankruptcy to address sexual abuse claims

Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, celebrates Mass at St. Patrick's Church in Rome. Cardinal Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, celebrates Mass at St. Patrick's Church in Rome Aug. 28, 2022. | Credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

The Diocese of San Diego filed for bankruptcy on Thursday, the latest U.S. diocese to do so in response to hundreds of sexual abuse allegations leveled against it. 

San Diego bishop Cardinal Robert McElroy said in February 2023 that the diocese was considering declaring bankruptcy due to the “staggering” legal costs of responding to 400 new lawsuits brought during a three-year statewide expansion of the statute of limitations for child abuse cases.

In a letter to the diocese on Thursday, McElroy said that diocesan leaders have spent the past 16 months reviewing the abuse cases and that the diocese has “come to the conclusion that this is the moment to enter formally into bankruptcy and continue negotiations as part of the bankruptcy process.”

The bankruptcy filing, the cardinal said, was motivated by “the need for just compensation for victims of sexual abuse” as well as “the need to continue the Church’s mission of education, pastoral service, and outreach to the poor and the marginalized.”

McElroy pointed out that the diocese has already paid out a major sum stemming from a 2007 bankruptcy filing over other sex abuse cases. 

The diocese’s Chapter 11 filing this week “will achieve a definite conclusion to its legal liability for past claims of sexual abuse in the settlement we hope to reach in bankruptcy,” the prelate said. 

San Diego joins numerous other Catholic dioceses in filing for bankruptcy to address voluminous sexual abuse claims. Most recently, the Diocese of Fresno, also in California, filed for bankruptcy in May.

Numerous instances of diocesan bankruptcy have occurred after civil authorities have temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases, allowing alleged victims to file lawsuits against Church authorities for abuses that reportedly occurred decades ago. 

As has been the case with other diocesan bankruptcy proceedings, McElroy noted this week that, for San Diego, “only the diocese will be filing for bankruptcy.” 

“The parishes, parochial schools, and high schools will not,” the bishop said. 

“But it is clear that as part of providing appropriate compensation to past victims of the sexual abuse of minors, both the parishes and high schools will have to contribute substantially to the ultimate settlement in order to bring finality to the liability they face,” he said.

Efforts over the last few decades to address the sex abuse crisis in the Church “cannot begin to mitigate the enormous moral responsibility that I, as your bishop, and the entire Catholic community continue to bear,” McElroy said in his letter. 

“May God never let this shame pass from our sight, and may God’s tenderness envelop the innocent children and teenagers who were victimized,” he said.

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