The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said Tuesday that it planned to file for bankruptcy protection to put off going to trial in more than 140 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.
In a letter posted on the diocese's Web site, Bishop Robert Brom said the diocese made its decision because any damages awarded early in a trial could deplete "diocesan and insurance resources," leaving nothing for other victims. He also noted the time the process could take.
Attorney Micheal Webb said the diocese planned to file for bankruptcy protection by midnight, just hours before the first trial was scheduled to go forward Wednesday in a San Diego courtroom. A Chapter 11 filing automatically halts court proceedings.
San Diego would become the fifth U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy protection.
Diocese officials and plaintiffs' attorneys failed to reach a settlement during two days of negotiations, wrapped up Monday, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The diocese called plaintiffs' attorneys Tuesday morning to make a "final and best" settlement offer, Webb said. He declined to specify how much the church had offered but said it was higher than total settlements reached in other U.S. dioceses.
‘We were left with no choice’
"When they rejected it, we were left with no choice," Webb said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the total amount the church had offered was insufficient because San Diego has more plaintiffs than other jurisdictions.
"It's meaningless," said attorney Andrea Leavitt.
They also accused the church of using bankruptcy as a way to keep potentially embarrassing information under wraps. By delaying civil trials, the filing prevents diocese officials from being confronted in court with potentially embarrassing facts, missteps or documents related to past handling of abusive priests.
"For three years they've told people they want to settle, they want to be transparent, but the moment it became clear the truth will come out through a jury trial, they sought to shut down victims' ability to get compensated and get out the truth," said John Manly, an attorney representing a victim scheduled for trial in April. "It's wrong, and they're not going to get away with this."
Trial was set to begin Wednesday
A trial prompted by a woman's accusations that a priest forced her to have sex in his parish office in 1972, when she was 17, was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Three other trials were scheduled to follow, involving multiple victims and allegations that the diocese protected abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish.
Plaintiffs with cases already released for trial may appeal for permission to let those trials move ahead.
Diocese officials announced this month in a letter distributed to parishioners that they were contemplating bankruptcy to put off going to trial. The diocese retained an Arizona bankruptcy attorney who guided the Tucson Diocese through its filing, and Brom discussed the matter with diocese priests at a regular pre-Lent meeting Feb. 19 in San Diego.
The diocese, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, has 98 churches, runs 50 schools and has nearly 1 million parishioners.
In addition to Tucson and San Diego, the dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy were Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Davenport, Iowa. Tucson has emerged from bankruptcy, while proposed settlements in Spokane and Portland are awaiting final approval.
The Iowa diocese filed for bankruptcy just days before the civil trial of a retired bishop from a neighboring diocese was set to begin. Fifteen plaintiffs had come forward alleging abuse.