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The Catholic Diocese of Fresno joins long list of Dioceses who have declared bankruptcy

The chosen artwork at St. Charles Borromeo church in Visalia, California, is meant to resemble the Renaissance, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.
Esther Quintanilla
The chosen artwork at St. Charles Borromeo church in Visalia, California, is meant to resemble the Renaissance, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno.

FRESNO, Calif. – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced Tuesday it plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August after 154 claims of sexual abuse of minors by clergy were brought forward.

But it is not the first time the Catholic church in California, or in the U.S., has sought this path.

Last month, the Diocese of Sacramento filed for bankruptcy after more than 250 lawsuits alleged childhood sexual abuse. The Archdioceses in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Rosa also filed for bankruptcy in the last year.

The Diocese of Monterey, in the Central Coast, is also considering bankruptcy amid piling lawsuits, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Legal experts say filing for bankruptcy is a strategy used to reorganize funds to avoid undertaking dozens of individual trials.

For the Diocese, seeking bankruptcy protection is a preemptive move ahead of financial challenges that could leave the organization insolvent. The church will pay for the claims from internal funds, and says it has additional insurance to cover past abuses.

In a statement this week, Diocese of Fresno said the Vatican will not provide financial aid for the legal cases because it is an independent entity. It said Dioceses – in fact – support the Vatican.

During the bankruptcy process, a fund would be set up to distribute payments to sexual abuse survivors once their claims are reviewed. Survivors are typically represented by attorneys who file the claims on their behalf and become “creditors” in the lawsuit. The court will supervise all actions of the church under bankruptcy proceedings, and documents detailing the Diocese’s assets will be publicly available.

The process can generally take up to three years to resolve.

Church has dealt with claims for decades

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, criticized the Fresno Diocese’s plan to file for bankruptcy. The organization released a statement saying the decision won’t bring justice to victims and asked the Diocese to reconsider.

“Once the bankruptcy proceeds to its conclusion, anyone abused before the filing date who did not come forward by the bar date is forever barred from filing a lawsuit for damages,” the statement read in part. “This would include those who do not yet remember their abuse, those who do not yet understand the impact it has had on their life, those who are not yet ready to speak out, and – most disturbingly – those children who are too young to understand that they need to file a claim before the bar date.”

The flood of cases against the Diocese came after a 2019 law expanded the statute of limitations on old cases that may have expired. Several institutions – aside from the Catholic church – faced similar claims soon after the law was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Boy Scouts of America – which recently rebranded to Scouting America – was another notable organization that filed for bankruptcy amid a flood of lawsuits.

The Diocese of Fresno implemented a charter aimed at protecting children and young people from sexual abuse in 2003. The charter stemmed from the 2002 investigations of sexual abuse that began in Boston. The Diocese says many of the claims against local clergy are alleged to have occurred in the years prior.

In 2021, the Diocese of Fresno identified around 50 priests publicly who it considered “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. Many were no longer practicing within the Diocese or were dead.

The Diocese says it considers a credibly accused priest based on “reasonably available relevant information,” following an allegation.

The organization has a review board that advises the bishop on complaints and accusations, and acknowledges its process for determining credibility is different from a criminal or civil process.

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.
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.