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OGDENSBURG, New York (ChurchMilitant.com) - Another diocese in the Empire State is declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The diocese of Ogdensburg is the latest diocese in New York to declare bankruptcy as it faces numerous lawsuits stemming from decades of clerical sexual abuse. The diocese says nearly 140 lawsuits, previously barred by the statute of limitations, were filed against it between 2019 and 2021. So far, 14 claims have been resolved through settlement or dismissal.
On Monday, in a recorded video message, Ogdensburg's bishop, Terry LaValley, announced the diocese's financial decision, touting it as a way to help sex abuse victims.
[We] have come to realize that reorganization is the best context for resolving the remaining claims while continuing our mission as a diocese. Reorganization ensures that each survivor receives just compensation. It eliminates a race to the courthouse in which the earliest cases settled or brought to judgment, exhaust all resources available to pay claims, leaving nothing for victims whose cases are resolved later.
Advocates for the survivors as well as survivors themselves disagreed with the bishop's altruistic spin.
"The diocese of Ogdensburg is running from accountability," said Jeff Anderson, a well-known attorney for victims of clerical sexual abuse. "Instead of standing up for the people entrusted to their care and acknowledging the harm done to children for which they are responsible, the diocese is taking drastic, self-serving measures in an attempt to suppress the truth."
Anderson's colleague at Anderson and Associates, attorney Cynthia LaFave, saw the Chapter 11 filing as a self-centered move, more consistent with financial maneuvering than justice for the victims:
In declaring bankruptcy, the diocese knowingly obstructs survivors' long-awaited opportunity to say their piece, to be heard, to be acknowledged. Make no mistake, silencing survivors is exactly what the diocese has always done. This decision is another in a long line of decisions aimed at preserving the diocese's frail veneer by undermining the humanity and dignity of survivors.
The bishop said he made the decision "after extensive prayer and consultation" with "diocesan staff, the council of priests, the college of consulters, diocesan finance council, our pastoral counsel, the priests, deacons and leaders of the diocese as well as legal and financial advisors."
An adult survivor of clerical sexual abuse who was victimized when he was 18 and who viewed LaValley's message contacted Church Militant expressing his frustration with whom the bishop failed to consult: the victims. He emailed this reaction:
"After extensive prayer and consultation." How much consultation with the victims of priest sexual predation was done? Victims like myself, who never got a dime from either the priest who abused us, or his religious order, know painfully well the ruses used by Church officials to put victims off. To thwart justice for victims. Victims know well how this "bankruptcy" shell game works! How settlements are never reached, or postponed, until all the assets of the diocese are safely squirreled away. Dioceses that file bankruptcy are never really bankrupt; they still have assets, but these are hidden. And although bishops will continue to talk about how they are making things good for victims, providing just settlements for abuse cases, their cash-poor settlements are far from just. And the victims are abused a second time.
In 2019, New York passed the Child Victims Act, opening a window of opportunity for victims previously denied the opportunity to file suit. The CVA allows survivors of child sexual abuse to bring civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions that protect them. Survivors are able to do this until they reach the age of 55. It also extends the period of time during which a survivor of child sexual abuse can file a claim for monetary damages.
The mostly rural Ogdensburg diocese, which extends across much of the northern part of the state, is the sixth of New York's eight dioceses to file for bankruptcy.