Two years after the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island became the largest diocese in the nation to declare bankruptcy, none of the hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases filed against the church have been settled.
Some survivors and their attorneys say it adds to the pain and hurt the victims suffered as children years or even decades ago.
“They filed for bankruptcy and said they wanted to see the victims adequately compensated,” said Paul Mones, an attorney who represents some of the survivors. “People who have suffered continue to suffer through these legal machinations that they are forced to endure.”
The Diocese of Rockville Center has hired a major international law firm, Jones Day, to defend itself in complex proceedings, which sometimes involve nearly 100 lawyers meeting at the same time.
The diocese declined to comment on the proceedings, other than pointing to court documents indicating that it had recently offered an unspecified “counter-offer” in mediation, and that further sessions were scheduled for the following weeks.
The diocese declared bankruptcy on Oct. 1, 2020, saying the potential cost of payments stemming from cases filed under the state’s Child Victims Act left it facing financial ruin.
The CVA allowed people to sue the church, schools and other institutions, regardless of when the alleged abuse took place. Some of the diocesan cases date back to 1957, the year the diocese was founded, according to court documents.
When the diocese declared bankruptcy, cases ceased to be heard by the New York State Supreme Court. Instead, they are now in US bankruptcy court.
Bishop John Barres said at the time that bankruptcy “offers the only way to ensure a just and equitable outcome for all involved, including survivors of abuse whose compensation settlements will be resolved by the courts”.
Some 200 lawsuits were then filed against the diocese, Barres said. Lawyers say there are now 636. The deadline for the CVA’s one-year “rollback” window has been extended from August 2020 to August 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic .
The CVA cases add to about 350 that were settled under a separate diocesan program that began in 2017 and cost the diocese $62 million in victim compensation, church officials said. .
The payout for CVA court cases could be much higher, some lawyers said. Mones handled a case in 2007 involving a youth minister who sexually abused two minors at St. Raphael’s Parish in East Meadow. This case alone ended with a jury award of $11.45 million to the victims.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota-based attorney who also represents some of the survivors, said diocesan attorneys are taking a “scorched earth” approach to negotiations.
Still, he added, “I think there is an opportunity and I see progress and I’m hopeful. I know a partial resolution is possible.
Jones Day did not respond to a request for comment.
Court documents indicate that the diocese spends significant sums on legal representation. A filing lists a payment to Jones Day of $4,055,063.41 from February to May 2022. A lead attorney was paid at a rate of nearly $1,600 per hour, although the firm wrote that he deducted a 10% discount. A total of 23 Jones Day lawyers were paid, along with 11 paralegals, seven paralegals and other staff.
The diocese declined to comment on how much Jones Day or other law firms he hired were paid.
Church officials said they were taking cost-cutting measures to deal with sexual abuse cases. In October 2019, the diocese began implementing measures that reduced spending by $3.5 million per year. In August 2020, it cut its head office staff by 10%, saving $5 million a year.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the diocese hard: annual revenues had fallen by 40%, church officials said in October 2020, due to reduced Mass offering collections. Sundays, which had been suspended in person.
In March 2021, the diocese sold its Rockville Center headquarters for $5.2 million in a bankruptcy court-approved decision.
Despite the financial problems, diocesan officials say church activities such as Masses, religious education classes and social ministry programs have continued. The diocese is the eighth largest in the United States and is home to 1.4 million Catholics.
As the bankruptcy process unfolds, lawyers say it is unwieldy. At the in-person hearings in Manhattan before Martin Glen, Chief Judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, 100 representatives — mostly attorneys — gather, though some zoom in.
They represent survivors, the diocese, Catholic parishes on Long Island, insurance companies and other entities.
“There are a lot of parts moving at the same time, some in the same direction, some in opposite directions,” Anderson said.
Putting them all on the same page isn’t easy, he said, but Judge Glen pushes them.
Jordan Merson, a Manhattan-based attorney representing some of the survivors, said: “It’s moving very slowly, and the shame is that a lot of survivors who have claims in the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Rockville Center are looking across New State York while others business moves much faster than that.
He added, “But we are hopeful…that the diocese and parishes will work towards a final solution so survivors can get the justice they deserve.”
Merson represents Richard Tollner, a clergy sex abuse survivor who leads a committee of eight victims who serve as the voice of all survivors in the diocese during the proceedings.
“Lay people have the most powerful voice in the room,” Anderson said.