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Harrisburg, PA Marks 23rd Catholic Diocese to File Bankruptcy Amid Sexual Abuse Claims

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Six months ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, disclosed it had paid over $12 million dollars in settlement payouts to 106 survivors who were sexually abused as children by its clerics, deacons, seminarian, and other church officials. Today, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The filing, issued in Harrisburg federal bankruptcy court, stated the diocese “faces potentially significant exposure from remaining claimants,” and is therefore pursuing bankruptcy reorganization in an effort to compensate survivors with unresolved claims while maintaining its day-to-day operations, including performing its ministry. Church officials also confirmed that, since the mass settlement announcement in August, five additional survivors have received settlements.

Via court documents, the diocese asserted it has in excess of 200 creditors — including a $30 million loan from the Pennsylvania Economic Development Financing Authority and a dozen redacted names of individuals represented by personal injury attorneys — and estimated liabilities between $50 million and $100 million. The organization estimates its assets to be less than $10 million.

The filing marks the first Catholic diocese to seek bankruptcy protection Pennsylvania. The state was heralded as a leader in investigating the epidemic of sexual abuse by priests after it published a landmark grand jury report in 2018. The report, which revealed more than 300 priests had abused children over a period of 70 years, was deemed, “the broadest examination yet by a government agency in the United States of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church,” by the New York Times.

The Harrisburg diocese is represented by attorney Matt Haverstick, and reportedly serves approximately 250,000 Catholics in 89 parishes, throughout 15 counties. Haverstick confirmed to the Associated Press, “The diocese estimates it faces about 200 additional child sexual abuse claims, counting those that do not involve clergy.” By filing Chapter 11, the diocese effectively puts each of those outstanding sexual abuse claims on hold. Harrisburg’s Bishop, Ronald Gainer, said, “We have no other path forward to ensure the future of our diocese than reorganization bankruptcy.”

In addition to putting the hundreds of claims on hold, the Associated Press reports the bankruptcy filing may help shield the diocese from additional claims under Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on sex crimes.

Harrisburg lawyer Ben Andreozzi, who has two pending child sexual abuse lawsuits against the diocese, told the AP, “From the day they file bankruptcy, moving on into the future, if someone did not present their claim in that time frame, it is forever exhausted.”

Following the 2018 landmark report, the Harrisburg diocese opened a temporary settlement program. However, as the AP confirms, “many of those now-adult victims identified in the grand jury report are too old, under state law, to sue the dioceses.”

Last December, Pennsylvania passed a series of laws intended to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse by easing the process of filing a civil lawsuit. The state bill, signed by Democratic Governor, Tom Wolf, eliminated the statute of limitations on prosecuting future cases of childhood sex abuse, and increased the maximum age for a survivor to sue their abuser from 30 to 55.

However, as Vice News reported, “the package of laws did not include one key provision that many sex abuse survivors and their advocates had hoped for: a so-called lookback window, which typically opens up a one-time opportunity for survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions they belonged to — regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired.”

The AP confirmed that a proposed amendment allowing a lawsuit “lookback window,” similar to California’s landmark AB 218 law which went in to effect at the beginning of the year, must be passed by lawmakers again in the 2021-22 legislative session before needing approval by voters in a statewide referendum. To date, Pennsylvania lawmakers have rejected changing state law to allow such lawsuits.

Without the “lookback window” option, Attorney Andreozzi told the AP, “the diocese can resolve lawsuits at a much lower cost by going into bankruptcy before Pennsylvania opens a window for lawsuits.” That “lower cost” is viewed by many as a conscious and effective strategy on the part of the Catholic Church, which ultimately results in a miscarriage of justice for survivors.

Shaun Dougherty, an activist who has campaigned for statute-of-limitation changes in Pennsylvania and is now running for the state Senate, told the Washington Post he “feared victims would get far less out of a bankruptcy settlement, and would not get the day in court that they sought.” “If you’re a victim that finally had your opportunity to seek justice — it’s horrendous,” he told the Post. “That’s how [Catholic dioceses] operate. They’re protecting the secrets, the assets.”

*Editor’s Note:

BishopAccountability.org is a Massachusetts non-profit corporation that meticulously tracks and publishes updates regarding the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. To date, they have identified 24 dioceses and religious orders that have filed for bankruptcy protection (23 based in the U.S., and one in Guam). One identified diocese, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, has announced its intention to file for Chapter 11 protection, but has not officially done so in court. Hence, PINews listed Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in this article’s title as the “23rd” Catholic diocese to have filed for bankruptcy protection.