Might the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester consider altering a promise made to donors and use some charitable contributions to compensate survivors of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of its priests?
The question, posed by an abuse survivor to Rochester diocese Bishop Salvatore Matano last week, comes as the diocese simultaneously kicks off its annual Catholic Ministries Appeal and begins to thread its way through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy it filed in September.
The diocese did not rush to embrace the suggestion, but also did not definitively turn it down.
The overseer of the Roman Catholic churches in a 12-county region of Upstate New York, the diocese sought court protection from creditors last month, stating that it made the move in anticipation of a flood of sex-abuse claims that could make it liable for as much as a $100 million payout.
Not yet known is the number of claims it will be hit with during a one-year window in which victims of long-buried abuse by priests and other church functionaries can file claims that otherwise would have been barred by a statute of limitations.
So far, the diocese has taken pains to assure donors that their contributions would not be used to satisfy sex-abuse claims.
“Some faithful may believe that, going forward, their charitable gifts to any Catholic entity will be diverted from their intended purpose and used to satisfy the claims of the debtor’s creditors rather than to fund the ongoing ministries of the church that benefit the faithful and their community. The debtor will use its best efforts to dispel this misconception,” stated Diocesan Chancellor Rev. Daniel Condon in a Sept. 12 court filing.
However, midway through the diocese’s first meeting with creditors on Oct. 10, Matano did not entirely shut out the possibility of altering its position in his response to a plea from James Cali, who chairs the creditors committee, asking if the diocese would consider dropping that pledge.
The meeting was a five-hour session that began at 9 a.m. and stretched into the early afternoon with only a few short breaks.
Cali, an abuse survivor and a CPA, over the course of an hour intensely grilled Matano and Lisa Passero, chief financial officer of the diocese, seeking to piece together a detailed picture of diocesan assets. His focus was on learning what might be turned into cash.
Lamenting that the abuse Cali suffered years earlier at the hands of a priest had “separated you from the life of the church,” Matano said: “I feel a certain discomfort to make this simply about finances. I want to express most clearly my sympathy for survivors. I do not want you to leave this meeting viewing it only as a financial event. My duties go beyond that. I want to do the best I can from a pastoral point view. I am also aware of my inadequacy. I have to rely on the grace of God and the foundation of the Holy Spirit.”
A visibly moved Cali said he would accept Matano’s concern as genuine but also pressed the bishop as to whether some of the more than $6 million the diocese hopes to raise through the currently running CMA campaign might not go to sex-abuse victims.
The campaign lists various purposes donations might help fund but also states that no CMA funds will go to pay legal claims, Cali said. “Why will you not allocate some money to heal the scars you just brought up?”
“We must respect the wishes of donors and CMA funds go to protect children,” Matano responded.
Cali persisted, asking: Why not give donors the option of earmarking their contribution to compensate survivors?
“We would consider that,” responded the diocese’s bankruptcy lawyer, Stephen Donato of Bond, Schoeneck & King. Matano nodded agreement.
However, as of Oct. 14, a disclaimer on the Catholic Ministries Appeal website still assured donors that “no CMA contributions are used for the settlement of legal cases.”
What resources the diocese might tap to settle abuse survivors’ claims is still an open question.
By the diocese’s own estimate, as many as 1,000 claims could be filed during the one-year window allowed by the Child Victims Act. Signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February, the act took effect in August. It rolls back a statute of limitations requiring sex-abuse victims to move against abusers by the victims’ 23rd birthday, extending the deadline to claimants’ 55th birthday. In court papers, the Rochester diocese states that it anticipates paying out an average of $100,000 per claim.
Insurance might cover a substantial portion of the diocese’s obligation to pay abuse survivors, Passero suggested last week. Donato quickly cut in, however, warning that the extent of diocese’s ability to tap insurance is not yet known.
The diocese’s current liability policy, written by a Lloyds of London syndicate, caps sexual misconduct payments at $2 million. However, under a measure passed to deal with an ongoing stream of asbestos-related medical claims, parties like the Rochester diocese suddenly hit with decades-old claims can seek reimbursement from insurers that wrote policies that were in effect when the injury occurred even though those policies have long lapsed.
Such claims can be made only for injuries suffered in 1985 or earlier. But the measure has been successfully applied by Catholic dioceses that previously have been sued, says Michael Finnegan, an attorney with Jeff Anderson & Associates, a St. Paul, Minn., firm specializing in representing sexual-abuse plaintiffs. Securing such payments usually involves considerable negotiation between the insurer and the claimant, and sometimes the claims are only resolved in court, Finnegan adds.
In the meeting last week, Passero said the Rochester diocese’s annual revenues amount to $20 million to $25 million with donations accounting for a significant portion. In a recent filing, the diocese stated approximately $67 million in total assets, $50 million short of some $113 million in liabilities. An anticipated $90 million in Child Victims Act claims account for most of the liabilities.
Cali last week asked whether the diocese might be able to turn into cash some of $86,201 it declared in jewelry and valuable items including a golden, jewel-encrusted chalice.
Matano was dubious. The chalice, a sacred object, was a bequest from a deceased bishop whose intention that it be used for the purpose for which it was consecrated should be respected, the bishop said.
Still, Cali wondered: Could it be sold to another church and in thus monetized in a way that would serve both ends?
Matano did not answer.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.