Catholic diocese files for bankruptcy
WATERTOWN — The Diocese of Ogdensburg has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in response to 124 lawsuits filed against it under the Child Victims Act, according to a statement issued Monday by the diocese.
Bishop Terry R. LaValley was in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of New York, in Utica, for the filing, which took place Monday. The move comes after “extensive consultation with diocesan staff, the College of Consultors, Council of Priests, the Diocesan Finance and Pastoral Councils, priests and deacons, pastoral leaders, and a team of professional advisors,” according to the statement.
The diocese states that there are 124 cases currently pending against it from those “who assert that they were the victims of childhood sexual abuse. … The claims filed against the Diocese date back decades (1940s through 1990s), prior to the institution of the Diocese’s safe environment policies and procedures.”
In a news conference Monday afternoon at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart church in Watertown, LaValley said the diocese has educated children and young people on how to recognize and avoid risky situations. It also has required background checks and safe environment training for everyone who works with minors.
“We’ve addressed allegations of abuse responsibly and justly when they’ve been raised,” he said.
In the statement, LaValley again apologized for “the suffering caused by child sexual abuse by priests and other Church personnel.”
“An important part of our ministry is to respond to claims of survivors in a way that acknowledges what they suffered and to help them find healing and a sense of peace,” the statement from LaValley read, “We are committed to responding to survivors and CVA lawsuits justly and fairly while maintaining our mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and reach all in need.”
LaValley continued to expressed his concern for the victims of child sexual abuse for all they have suffered.
“It’s truly my prayer that through this process, we can bring the victims to some sense of peace and healing,” he said.
The diocese states that the goal for filing a reorganization case is to resolve the legal cases in a “fair and equitable manner” while allowing the Diocese to continue its mission.
Dealing with the lawsuits one at a time would be extremely time-consuming and expensive, and require years of court involvement.
“We’ve reached a point where we need to find an orderly, efficient and just way to deal with these claims,” LaValley said at the news conference.
LaValley said that reorganization is best for the victims, and for the diocese.
“Resolving these claims in a timely manner will avoid frustrating delays for the victims,” he said at the news conference.
“Filing for reorganization does not hinder claims filed by survivors,” stated LaValley. “Instead, it establishes a process for all claims to be treated fairly.”
LaValley expects the reorganization to have minimal effect on the celebration of the sacraments and parish life.
“We believe reorganization will be fair and equitable to all claimants while we continue to provide our vital ministries,” LaValley stated. “The Church in the North Country continues to focus on discipleship while addressing these lawsuits.” He noted that with the help of advisors, the Diocese will continue to evaluate how the Diocese will maintain its mission while seeking to compensate victims fairly.
LaValley stated it is likely that parishes will be asked to contribute funds available to address survivors’ claims.
“Many of the parishes have also been sued in the abuse lawsuits, creating the potential for liability for them, but we are hopeful that the reorganization case will allow us to resolve all claims against the diocese and parishes,” stated LaValley.
The diocese has instituted extensive policies and procedures to prevent sexual abuse and they also ensure that allegations are handled in a responsible and just manner.
“We believe that the fact that there have been no claims filed alleging abuse occurred in the last 20 years is evidence that we have made great progress and are on the right course. Nevertheless, we remain vigilant,” he stated adding that he is available to meet with every abuse survivor.
Charles Sullivan, counsel for the diocese, says that all of the lawsuits were filed during the period of the Child Victims Act from August 2019 until August 2021.
Sullivan said the diocese has been engaged in a process with the victims and attempted to resolve claims one at a time. He said it got to the point where the diocese felt filing for bankruptcy was the most fair and equitable way.
Attorneys from the offices of LaFave, Wein & Frament PLLC and Jeff Anderson & Associates, who represent over 50 survivors who filed lawsuits under New York’s Child Victims Act against the Diocese of Ogdensburg, issued a statement as well.
“The Diocese of Ogdensburg’s resolution to declare bankruptcy shows, once again, a continuity in their intentions — which are, solely and purely, in service to their own self-interest,” said attorney Cynthia LaFave in the statement, “In declaring bankruptcy, the Diocese knowingly obstructs survivors’ long-awaited opportunity to say their piece; to be heard, to be acknowledged. Make no mistake, silencing survivors is exactly what the Diocese has always done. This decision is another in a long line of decisions aimed at preserving the Diocese’s frail veneer by undermining the humanity and dignity of survivors.”
Catholic institutions are retreating to bankruptcy in an effort to end-run the civil justice system and avoid accountability for the acts committed by priests and others, according to the law firms.
“The Diocese of Ogdensburg is running from accountability,” said attorney Jeff Anderson. “Instead of standing up for the people entrusted to their care and acknowledging the harm done to children for which they are responsible, the Diocese is taking drastic, self-serving measures in an attempt to suppress the truth.”
Survivor advocate Katie Fitzgerald spoke up at the news conference, also voicing her displeasure with the diocese filing for bankruptcy. She said this is not what the survivors want.
“So your prayers and whatever your agenda is, you’re not reaching the survivors,” she said. “Stop asserting that that is their will. It’s not.”