For some, the departure from state court is not a major setback. Jake Giovati, 30, who said he had been abused by a priest at one of the diocese’s parishes when he was about 10, said he believed the diocese was still being held to answer.
“In my mind, filing for bankruptcy is them looking at those claims and seeing them as so credible that they do not believe they could denounce those in court,” Mr. Giovati said.
But many others see the bankruptcy as a circumvention of the justice that can be delivered in civil court and in direct defiance of the state’s new Child Victims Act, which the Catholic Church spent millions of dollars trying to fight.
More than 20 Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the United States, including the San Diego diocese, have filed for bankruptcy over the past 15 years, according to BishopAccountability.org.
Rochester is the first of the eight New York dioceses to do so. Overseeing 12 counties in Western New York where more than 300,000 Catholics reside, its assets are estimated at $50 million to $100 million, while its financial liabilities are $100 million to $500 million, according to documents filed in federal bankruptcy court.
Plaintiffs who have already filed cases and any forthcoming claimants will be channeled through bankruptcy court, where they become creditors eligible for a portion of a settlement fund negotiated by a committee of abuse survivors. The payout hinges on what the diocese is worth. That can get slippery.
When dioceses have filed for bankruptcy in other states, they have been able to pay claims through insurers, reserves and the sale of nonsecular property, such as a chancery building or a mall, said Michael T. Pfau, a lawyer whose firm has represented child sexual abuse victims across the nation.
“It is not going to mean that there will be a wholesale sell-off of churches, hospitals and schools,” he said. “It has never happened and it’s not going to happen in Rochester.”
Bishop Matano has framed the filing as the “fairest course of action” to address a growing pool of victims, suggesting that otherwise there would be a race to the courtroom and the first round of plaintiffs would take all of the available funds.
“That is a grossly oversimplified talking point,” Mr. Pfau said. “Catholic dioceses and religious orders all over the country have resolved claims without filing for bankruptcy and they have done that through good faith negotiations with abuse survivors and their plaintiffs’ counsel.”