After strongly indicating that he would rule against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester’s bid to stop sexual-abuse survivors from going after parishes and other diocese affiliates in state court lawsuits, Bankruptcy Court Judge Paul Warren did just as he foreshadowed.
Some 300 such actions accusing Rochester diocese parish priests and other church officials of sexually abusing children decades ago had been put on hold for some two years under a pact between the diocese and abuse survivors early in the diocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The diocese filed the bankruptcy petition in September 2019.
The formerly frozen state court actions and the diocese’s bid for court protection came as a result of New York’s passage of the Child Victims Act. The CVA temporarily lifted a seven-year statute of limitations on sexual abuse. The law prompted thousands of adults who had been molested as children but had not gone after their abusers at the time a chance to pursue their abusers.
The agreement to freeze the state court cases unraveled in late March as abuse survivors’ patience with the bankruptcy’s glacial pace wore thin and the creditors committee declined to renew the pact. The diocese’s attempt to have the freeze involuntarily reimposed did not sit well with the more than 400 abuse survivors with claims in the bankruptcy.
After hearing arguments from both sides in a hearing several weeks ago, Warren agreed to briefly reimpose the freeze but warned the diocese that its reprieve would be temporary. In the end, he agreed with the abuse survivors, concluding that the case has dragged on too long.
“This bankruptcy case is far from its early stages, having been filed nearly three years ago,” Warren wrote in the ruling. “The public interest in preserving the status quo in favor of the Diocese may have been strong in the early months of this case, (but) the weight of public interest during these later months now tips in favor of the abuse survivors—who have suffered in silence for so long—to be able to seek redress in the state courts.”
The ruling reviving the state court cases comes two days after the diocese proposed a $147.5 million settlement. Abuse survivors found the late-breaking offer wanting. They accused Rochester Bishop Salvatore Matano of high handedness in trying force a deal worked out between the church and its insurance carriers with no input from survivors and of trying to shortchange them with a lowball offer.
While Warren’s order unfreezes state court cases, the judge included a provision that seems crafted to ensure that a final resolution is reached not in a welter of independently adjudicated state court decisions but as a global settlement reached under his jurisdiction.
“The court specifically prohibits all abuse survivors from attempting to enforce a CVA judgment granted by any court from executing against the proceeds of any insurance policy that names the diocese as a co-insured, absent a further order of this court,” Warren ruled.
Given the distance between the parties so far, how soon a mutually acceptable resolution might be reached is not clear.