Bishop Salvatore Matano of Rochester, N.Y., speaks during a Sept. 12 news conference at the pastoral centre in Rochester after the diocese filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. CNS photo/Jeff Witherow, Catholic Courier

Cost of abuse in U.S. nears $4 billion

By  Brian Fraga, Catholic News Service
  • September 18, 2019

The Catholic Church in the United States has spent a staggering sum of close to $4 billion in the past 20 years to compensate victims and to investigate, adjudicate and prevent clergy sex abuse.

That has caused many dioceses to lay off staff, sell property and liquidate assets amid growing evidence that Catholics across America are cutting back on or ignoring altogether their bishops’ diocesan appeals because of the scandals.

At least 20 U.S. dioceses since 2004 have filed for bankruptcy protection to pay their bills and provide financial compensation for victims. On Sept. 12, the Diocese of Rochester in New York became the latest to petition the federal courts for Chapter 11 reorganization.

“This is a very difficult and painful decision,” said Bishop Salvatore Matano. 

The diocese is facing nearly 50 lawsuits filed in the wake of New York’s Child Victims Act, which has suspended the state’s civil statute of limitations in sex abuse cases for one year.

The Catholic Courier, Rochester’s diocesan newspaper, reported Matano as saying that Chapter 11 was “the best and fairest course of action for the victims and for the well-being of the diocese, its parishes, agencies and institutions.”

“We believe this is the only way we can provide just compensation for all who suffered the egregious sin of sexual abuse while ensuring the continued commitment of the diocese to the mission of Christ,” Matano said.

Recent figures compiled by BishopAccountability.org, a website that tracks the bishops’ response to the clergy sex abuse scandals, indicate the scandals have cost American dioceses and religious orders more than $3.8 billion. 

Data provided by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, shows dioceses and religious orders in the 2018 fiscal year incurred almost $302 million in total expenses related to investigating sex abuse allegations, legal fees, victim payments, living costs and therapy for offenders, and operating abuse prevention programs. In the last five fiscal years, those expenses have cost dioceses and religious orders an estimated $1.1 billion.

“It’s a difficult financial time for the Church,” Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and a senior research associate at CARA, told Catholic News Service.

But the amounts spent by dioceses only capture a small snapshot of the financial impact of the crisis. The numbers don’t take into account donation and other revenue lost in the wake of the scandals.

“If someone wants to stop withholding from a capital campaign or the bishop’s appeal, it could be because of the abuse crisis, but it’s a lot more difficult to make that cause and effect connection,” said Pat Markey, executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, an organization that provides fiscal and administrative expertise.

A Pew Research Center survey released this past summer indicated that 26 per cent of U.S. Catholics reported giving less money as a result of reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops. 

Victim settlements have prompted many dioceses to liquidate assets and shrink operating budgets,  impacting the ability to carry out works of evangelization and ministry.

“To be certain, the crisis has had an ongoing impact on the Church’s ability to invest in its mission,” Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., told the Fairfield County Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which was under Chapter 11 protection from 2011 to 2015, said the archdiocese sold its pastoral centre, liquidated property that had been set aside for a cemetery and future parish sites, and cut its staff by more than 45 per cent.

“You start cutting things when you can, and when you are a service organization, like a central office of a diocese is, it’s people who are the bulk of our budget,” said Topczewski. He said the Chapter 11 process enabled the archdiocese to distribute $21 million to 355 priest-abuse victims and establish a $500,000 fund to cover victims’ therapy expenses.

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