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Diocese of San Diego says it may file for bankruptcy as it faces hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits

The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego announced this week that it may file for bankruptcy in order to pay settlements for victims of sexual abuse.

In a Thursday letter to parishioners, Cardinal Robert McElroy wrote that the diocese "must face the staggering legal costs" in response to legal claims dating back as far as the 1940s.

“Almost three-quarters of them are in the period between 1945 and 1975,” diocese spokesperson Kevin Eckery said.


The diocese said it had received more than 400 claims for the sexual abuse of minors by priests, though none of them report abuse by any priest who is currently part of the ministry.

Matthew Bowler
Diocese spokesperson Kevin Eckery fields questions about potentially filing for bankruptcy, Feb. 10, 2023.

In 2007, the diocese settled 144 claims for $198 million and said in a statement that settling cases now at the same rate would cost more than $550 million, "which is why bankruptcy is under consideration."


“Here they're going to be doing this again. They don't need to file this bankruptcy,” attorney Irwin Zalkin said.

He helped to negotiate that earlier settlement, and currently represents almost 120 survivors in lawsuits against the diocese.

“They want to file this bankruptcy to do two things: one is to protect their assets and try to reduce the amount that they need to pay claimants. And, two, to cut off future claims against them,” he said.

He said the latest announcement was premature and unfair to survivors.

“The diocese shouldn't be using bankruptcy as a way of trying to lowball settlements with survivors. That's not the point of a bankruptcy,” Zalkin said.

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Jacob Aere
The sun peeks through the clouds at the Pastoral Center for the Diocese of San Diego, Feb. 10, 2023.

McElroy's letter states: "Bankruptcy would provide a pathway for ensuring that the assets of the diocese will be used equitably to compensate all victims of sexual abuse, while continuing the ministries of the Church for faith formation, pastoral life and outreach to the poor and the marginalized."

John Manly, an attorney whose law firm has represented people who have reported sex abuse in San Diego and elsewhere, said the church should not be allowed to pursue bankruptcy.

"The Diocese of San Diego has a well-documented history of lying about its financial assets in order to dodge liability for their knowing concealment of child-molesting priests. We intend to contest any attempt to file bankruptcy," Manly said.

"The diocese is a healthy, wealthy institution. The bankruptcy courts should be a refuge for organizations who have encountered financial difficulties. It was not intended and should not be used by institutions who have engaged in the systematic criminal conduct," he said.

Matthew Bowler
The exterior of the Catholic Diocese of San Diego on Feb. 10, 2023

Manly had even stronger criticism for the proposal.

"The mafia is not allowed to file bankruptcy, and neither should the Catholic hierarchy when they have knowingly allowed the rape of boys and girls by priests like the Diocese of San Diego," he said.

The diocese said the new claims were the result of AB 218, a 2019 bill that extended the statute of limitations for child abuse claims.

“It's been close to 30 years since the last time there was a claim for a diocesan priest in San Diego being accused of abusing a minor,” Eckery said.

The diocese plans to provide letters about the potential bankruptcy to parishioners at Masses this weekend.