Two years after the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island became the largest diocese in the nation to declare bankruptcy, none of the hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases filed against the church has been settled.
That has some survivors and their attorneys saying it is adding to the pain and injury the victims suffered as children years or even decades ago.
“They declared bankruptcy and said they wanted to see the victims adequately compensated,” said Paul Mones, an attorney who is representing some of the survivors. “People who suffered continue to suffer through these legal machinations that they are forced to go through.”
The Diocese of Rockville Centre has hired a major international law firm, Jones Day, to defend itself in the complex proceedings, which sometimes involve nearly 100 attorneys meeting at the same time.
The diocese declined to comment on the proceedings, other than pointing to court documents indicating it recently offered an unspecified “counter-offer” in the mediation, and that more sessions were scheduled for the following weeks.
The diocese declared bankruptcy on Oct. 1, 2020, saying the potential cost of payouts stemming from cases filed under the state Child Victims Act left it facing financial ruin.
The CVA allowed people to file lawsuits against the church, schools and other institutions regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse took place. Some of the diocesan cases go as far back as 1957, the year the diocese was founded, according to court papers.
When the diocese declared bankruptcy, the cases stopped being heard in New York State Supreme Court. Instead, they are now in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
Bishop John Barres said at the time that bankruptcy “offers the only way to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for everyone involved, including abuse survivors whose compensation settlements will be resolved by the courts."
Some 200 lawsuits had been filed against the diocese by then, Barres said. Attorneys say there are now 636. The deadline for the CVA one-year “look back” window was extended from August 2020 to August 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CVA cases are in addition to about 350 that were settled under a separate diocesan program that began in 2017 and had cost the diocese $62 million in compensation to victims, church officials said.
The payout from the CVA legal cases could be far higher, some attorneys said. Mones handled a case in 2007 involving a youth minister who sexually abused two minors at St. Raphael's parish in East Meadow. That case alone ended with an $11.45 million jury award to the victims.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota-based attorney who is also representing some of the survivors, said the diocese's attorneys are taking a "scorched earth" approach to the negotiations.
Still, he added, “I think there is opportunity and I do see progress and I am hopeful. I know that a partial resolution is possible.”
Jones Day did not respond to a request for comment.
Court documents indicate the diocese is spending substantial sums for legal representation. One filing lists a payment to Jones Day of $4,055,063.41 for February through May 2022. One lead attorney was paid at a rate of nearly $1,600 an hour, though the firm wrote that it deducted a 10% discount. A total of 23 Jones Day lawyers were paid, along with 11 law clerks, seven paralegals and other staff.
The diocese declined to comment on how much Jones Day or other law firms it has hired were being paid.
Church officials have said they were taking cost-cutting measures to deal with the sex abuse cases. In October 2019 the diocese started implementing moves that reduced expenses by $3.5 million a year. In August 2020, it cut staff at its headquarters by 10%, saving $5 million a year.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the diocese hard: annual revenue had dropped by 40%, church officials said in October 2020, due to decreased offertory collections at Sunday Masses, which had been suspended in-person.
In March 2021, the diocese sold its headquarters in Rockville Centre for $5.2 million in a move approved by the bankruptcy court.
Despite the financial problems, diocesan officials say church functions such as Masses, religious education classes and social ministry programs have continued. The diocese is the eighth largest in the United States and home to 1.4 million Catholics.
As the bankruptcy settlement process plays out, attorneys say it is unwieldy. At the in-person hearings in Manhattan before Martin Glen, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, 100 representatives — most of them attorneys — gather, though some are on zoom.
They represent the survivors, the diocese, the Catholic parishes on Long Island, the insurance companies and other entities.
“There’s a lot of pieces moving at the same time, some in the same direction, others in opposite directions,” Anderson said.
Getting them all on the same page isn’t easy, he said, but Judge Glen is pushing them.
Jordan Merson, a Manhattan-based attorney representing some of the survivors, said, “It’s moving very slowly, and the shame of it is a lot of survivors that have claims in the Diocese of Rockville Centre bankruptcy are watching across New York State as other cases are moving along much faster than this.”
He added, “But we’re hopeful … that the diocese and the parishes will work toward a final solution so that the survivors can get justice as they deserve.”
Merson is representing Richard Tollner, a clergy sex abuse survivor who heads a committee of eight victims who serve as the voice of all survivors in the diocese during the proceedings.
“They are the lay people who have the most powerful voice in the room,” Anderson said.