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Catholic Diocese of Fresno to seek bankruptcy as claims of abuse are made against clergy

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
Monica Velez
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

FRESNO, Calif. – The Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced Tuesday it plans to file a petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August to resolve more than 150 claims of abuse by clergy.

The sudden announcement came amid mounting claims of abuse – 154 in total – which Bishop Joseph Brennan criticized harshly in a statement as “sins committed by individual clergy and a smaller number of the laity in the Diocese.”

In 2021, the Diocese released a list of credibly accused priests after a two-year review of clergy files. Then, it found over two dozen priests, deacons and members of the church with credible accusations within the Diocese, and another two dozen with similar accusations but which occurred at other Dioceses.

That list, as well as statements from Brennan and instructions for reporting abuse, is available to the public on a webpage with information about abuse claims as well as the next steps of the bankruptcy process.

The mounting claims of abuse by priests comes as a recent state law allowed victims to bring forward previously barred or expired claims of sexual abuse they suffered as a child. The Diocese said in a statement it believes the vast majority of alleged sexual abuse occurred prior to reforms the church made in 2002.

Diocese leaders said the bankruptcy petition will ensure “all victims are compensated fairly and equitably” but stated they will also look to avoid depleting Diocese resources by the costs of lawsuits and expected settlements.

The Diocese acknowledged its assets and insurance may not be sufficient to cover all the costs, and the situation could render the Diocese insolvent.

The only entity officially filing for bankruptcy protection is The Roman Catholic Bishop of Fresno, while Catholic schools and parishes operate under a different legal entity.

“I imagine the faithful may be dismayed by the news of our serious financial situation, but I ask them to let go of their distress and turn their hearts towards the victims of abuse,” Brennan said in a news release.

Of the scores of priests credibly accused and officially named, more than two dozen are dead, some of them ordained by the Diocese as far back as the 1940s. Others are either retired or their status is unknown, since some of those accused were outside visitors at the time of the alleged abuse.

Accused priests and staff worked at churches across the San Joaquin Valley. The Diocese of Fresno serves over one million Catholics not just within Fresno County but also across Kern, Merced, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Kings and Tulare counties.

The Diocese said a petition for court-supervised Chapter 11 bankruptcy would allow the Diocese to continue its regular work while creditors negotiate a plan for compensation. The Diocese said employees will continue to be paid regular wages. Dioceses and archdioceses around the country have similarly filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy over their own accusations of abuse.

The Fresno Diocese asked its faithful to pray for the survivors of sexual abuse. “We must make the protection of the young and vulnerable a cornerstone of who we are as People of God,” a statement read.

The Diocese last year unveiled the largest Catholic parish church in the country, St. Charles Borromeo in Visalia. The $21 million church seats around 3,000 people. The facility also helped consolidate services from around the area and was aimed at alleviating the lack of priests, which is also a nationwide issue.

On Saturday, the Diocese welcomed six new priests to the Valley during a special mass.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.
Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.