New York Catholic diocese files for bankruptcy protection amid clergy abuse lawsuits

Pope Francis in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2015
Pope Francis in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2015.
(Jewel Samad / Associated Press)

A Roman Catholic diocese in suburban New York has become the largest in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy to protect itself from a wave of lawsuits over past sexual abuse by clergy members.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which serves more than 1.4 million Catholics on Long Island, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Thursday. It is the eighth-largest Catholic diocese or archdiocese in the U.S.

“The financial burden of the litigation has been severe and only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bishop John Barres, the spiritual leader of the diocese, said in a video posted on the diocese’s website. “Our goal is to make sure that all clergy sexual abuse survivors and not just a few who were first to file lawsuits are afforded just and equitable compensation.”


Barres said more than 200 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by clergy members have been filed against the diocese since the 2019 passage of New York’s Child Victims Act, which suspended the statute of limitations to allow sex-abuse victims to pursue decades-old allegations against clergy members, teachers and other adults.

“What became clear was that the diocese was not going to be able to carry out its spiritual, charitable and educational missions if it were to continue to shoulder the increasingly heavy burden of litigation expenses associated with these cases,” Barres said.

Jeff Anderson, a lawyer representing people who say they were abused by clergy in the Rockville Centre diocese, slammed the bankruptcy filing as “strategic, cowardly and wholly self-serving.” Although the Child Victims Act gives people until next August to sue over alleged abuse from long ago, Anderson said a bankruptcy judge would probably set a deadline for claims against the diocese, narrowing that window.

The California attorney general’s investigation into how the Los Angeles Archdiocese — and potentially other dioceses in California — handled abuse allegations over the years is a major step for prosecutors.

“This decision is not the end for courageous survivors abused by clergy in this diocese,” Anderson said in a written statement. “Survivors will still be able to come forward, expose the truth, help protect children and seek healing. This will not stop survivors or us from fighting to make sure the Diocese of Rockville Centre is held accountable.”

Rockville Centre’s is the latest of more than 20 Catholic dioceses in the nation to file for bankruptcy protection in the face of lawsuits over sexual abuse.. Three other dioceses in New York state have also filed for protection in the last 13 months: Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.

Last year, dioceses in Guam and Harrisburg, Pa., filed for bankruptcy protection, and in May, it was the Archdiocese of New Orleans. In all, about two dozen dioceses or archdioceses in the U.S. have sought such protection since the early 2000s in the face of lawsuits over sexual abuse.

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops tallied 4,434 sex abuse allegations against clergy in 2018-19 — triple the number from the previous year.

The Rockville Centre diocese started an independent compensation program in 2017 to provide settlements for victims of past sexual abuse and has so far paid more than $62 million to about 350 survivors, officials said. Settlements may be higher for some accusers who did not participate in the program but chose instead to file lawsuits under the Child Victims Act.

Barres said most of the diocese’s operations would continue despite the bankruptcy filing. He said employees and vendors would be paid.