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Federal Bankruptcy Judge Rejects Catholic Diocese’s Bid to Stop State Litigation on Child Sex Abuse, Excoriates ‘Heavy-Handed Threat’ to Survivors

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester NY

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester NY

More than two years ago, a group of sexual abuse survivors in New York agreed to suspend their litigation under the Child Victims Act. The Diocese of Rochester, in turn, indicated that they could resolve their claims in a settlement through a bankruptcy settlement.

On Monday, a federal bankruptcy judge granted survivors to resume their previously paused actions against hundreds of independent Catholic corporations that did not seek bankruptcy protection. His scathing ruling slammed what the judge perceived as the Diocese’s hardball tactics.

“Portraying itself as a victim, trying to do right by the Abuse Survivors, the Diocese predicts that if state court litigation is permitted to move forward against any of the Catholic Corporations, ‘the Diocese may be forced to pursue a non-consensual plan of reorganization,'” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul R. Warren wrote in a 16-page decision and order. “That is a pretty heavy-handed threat to be leveled at the people who are the real victims here—the Abuse Survivors.”

Mitchell Garabedian, the famed attorney for childhood sexual abuse depicted in the movie Spotlight, celebrated the ruling on behalf of 90 of his clients who filed claims in those state proceedings.

“The decision of the Court to deny the Motion of the Diocese to stay state court litigation against independent Catholic corporations will allow survivors to obtain justice and validation,” wrote Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of clergy abuse survivors over the years. “Justice and validation which has been for decades upon decades a long time in the making.”

Some survivors have permanently lost that opportunity, the judge noted.

“During the nearly 3 years that this Chapter 11 case has been pending, at least 3 Abuse Survivors have died,” the ruling states. “Whether those Abuse Survivors had potential CVA claims against any of the non-debtor Catholic Corporations is now largely academic. But, what is not academic is the fact that those Abuse Survivors lost the chance to seek justice in a court of law. Given the age of many of the Abuse Survivors, if enjoined from going forward with actions against the independent Catholic Corporations, it is likely that more will be denied the chance to seek justice because the sands of time are working against them.”

At the heart of Judge Warren’s scathing ruling is the Child Victims Act (CVA), a statute passed by the New York Legislature to extend the statute of limitations. The enactment of the law unleashed a flood of litigation by alleged victims, whom legislators recognized may need time to confront the legacy of abuse.

“The Abuse Survivors have been silenced, in many cases, for decades,” Warren wrote. “The CVA window gave them the right to be heard. Instead, the Abuse Survivors agreed to refrain from pursuing their CVA claims against the independent Catholic Corporations in hopes that the Diocese’s Chapter 11 case might provide an adequate measure of justice. After nearly 3 years, the Abuse Survivors have indicated their desire to seek redress from non-debtor Catholic Corporations. In response, the Diocese has requested that the Court enjoin the Abuse Survivors, while also announcing an intention to seek confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan over the objection of the Abuse Survivors. After decades of silence, that might strike the Abuse Survivors as ironic.”

Counsel for the Diocese of Rochester did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

Read the ruling, below:

(Image via YouTube screengrab)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."