The Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has announced that it is filing for bankruptcy.
A landslide of clergy abuse lawsuits have been filed against the diocese after a watershed Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse was released in August 2018 and a change to state law allowed new litigation on old cases.
“This decision was made after countless hours of prayer and careful deliberation with our financial experts, attorneys, and our Diocesan Consultative Bodies,” Bishop Ronald W. Gainer said in a Feb. 19 announcement on the diocese’s website.
“Despite the success of the Survivor Compensation Program, which helped 111 survivors of clergy child sexual abuse, or 96 per cent of those who participated in the program, we already are in receipt of half a dozen new lawsuits, any one of which could severely cripple the diocese,” he said.
The bankruptcy filing will allow the diocese to reorganize its finances in order to keep its main ministries afloat and to pay off its existing debts. Pending lawsuits against the diocese will be frozen until after a bankruptcy judgment is made, the Washington Post reported.
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury report claimed to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 301 credibly accused priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also presented a devastating portrait of alleged efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations – either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal. The text of the report was drafted by the office of the state attorney general Josh Shapiro.
The two dioceses not included in the report, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, had undergone previous investigations.
While the statute of limitations in the state of Pennsylvania prevented most victims from filing lawsuits against priests who are still alive, a recent decision from Pennsylvania’s Superior Court ruled that victims may file lawsuits against dioceses in some cases, even if the statute of limitations for a lawsuit against the alleged perpetrator of the abuse had passed. The decision allowed a wave of lawsuits against the Diocese of Harrisburg.
“Our current financial situation, coupled with changes in the law both here and in New Jersey, where we are already named in one lawsuit and where we anticipate more to follow, left us with no other path forward to ensure the future of our Diocese,” Gainer said.
Harrisburg joins more than 20 U.S. dioceses and religious orders that have filed for bankruptcy due to sex abuse lawsuits since 2004, according to the website bishop-accountability.org. They are the fifth diocese to file since the summer of 2018, during which accusations of sexual abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick came to light, and the Grand Jury report was published.
“The diocese was in need of right-sizing,” Matthew Haverstick, an attorney for the Diocese of Harrisburg, told the Washington Post. “Bankruptcy is really the responsible way to do it, so it can continue to do all the things it does, spiritually and charitably.”
Shaun Dougherty, who has campaigned for changes to the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post that the diocese’s decision is “horrendous” because he fears victims will not get justice or fair compensation.
“That’s how (Catholic dioceses) operate. They’re protecting the secrets, the assets,” Dougherty said.
Gainer said in his statement that he hopes to bring the bankruptcy process to a conclusion “as soon as is reasonably possible and in a way that allows us to be present to the community, as we have been for the past 152 years.”
He added that anyone with further questions can find more information on the website for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
“I humbly ask for your prayers for our diocese as we move forward in this process. May God grant us every grace needed during this difficult time,” he said. “May Mary, Mother of the Church and our Mother, intercede with Her Son to be our strength and support as well.”