Big trend piece to consider: Could the Catholic church in New York file for bankruptcy?

(COMMENTARY) The 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Tony Award-winning) play Doubt: A Parable is a fictional account that pits a progressive priest against a conservative nun. The plot involves allegations of sex abuse and a nun’s belief that he has engaged in some improper behavior after summoning the boy alone to the rectory. With no actual proof that Father Brendan Flynn is guilty of any crime, the priest’s fate is sealed and the audience is left with its own doubt about what may or may not have happened.

It was Mark Twain who famously said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In the case of the Catholic church these days, the takeaway from Doubt is something that can also be applied to the case of Australian Cardinal George Pell and New York’s recently-passed Child Victims Act. How are the two related? It’s something that could very well become a major story starting this summer.

Let’s start with Pell. As Julia Duin noted, Pell was convicted in an Australian courtroom on charges he sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne on several occasions following Sunday Mass.

Pell’s lawyers argued their client had been surrounded by other clergy after Mass and that the sexual acts he’s accused of performing would have been impossible considering the complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing. Guilty verdict aside, the case was made even crazier when in December the judge issued a gag order — a blanket ban that said details of the trial could not be published — out of concern it could influence the jury in a second trial awaiting Pell. It was largely ignored, especially by news organizations outside Australia.

Whether Pell was found guilty because of anti-Catholic bias is one theory, but the overall takeaway here — editors and reporters take note — is that this case may serve as a bellwether of more to come.

Even in New York? In January, the New York state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when not busy passing a law making it easier for abortions to take place in the third trimester, signed the Child Victims Act.

Under the new law, victims who survived sex abuse will be able to file civil lawsuits against abusers and institutions until they are 55 years old. The current law permits victims to sue until they are 23. The sticking point — and one the Catholic church had been fighting against for years — is a “look-back window” for victims who were previously prohibited by the statute of limitations to sue during a one-year period. This is where the Pell issue and “recovering memories” (which sometimes can trigger false memories) comes into play. 

Doubt can often be a serious burden journalists need to deal with when reporting on such matters. How news organizations choose to cover these lawsuits (similar to what has taken place among other industries in the #MeToo era) will go a long way in determining their outcomes. While “recovering memories” remains controversial, one thing is certain: California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii have created “look-back windows.” Other states, most recently North Carolina, would extend the statute of limitations by decades.

As a result, many dioceses in those states issued large payouts — and some have even filed for bankruptcy. For example, the “look-back” provision from 2002 in California cost the church $1.2 billion. In 2009, the same provision forced the Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware to file for bankruptcy. Four years ago, a similar law led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to file for bankruptcy.

New York’s “look-back window” starts in August and law firms from across the country have already started to advertise in New York, hoping victims will come forward and retain their services. Before the law, signed by Cuomo on Feb. 14, was passed, more than 1,260 sexual abuse claims have been resolved and at least $228 million paid in compensation over the last two years under a systematic reconciliation program adopted by the state’s eight Catholic dioceses. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who leads the Archdiocese of New York, wrote in a blog post right before the law passed:

In my decade as archbishop of New York, my brother bishops and I have worked closely with Democrats and Republicans for a fair yet dramatic revision to our current ineffective laws. In fact, some of our proposed reforms were even tougher than those put forward by the legislators, like eliminating the criminal statute of limitations.

True, while we did express some concern about one portion of past proposals, to retroactively repeal the statute of limitations, we were far from alone in this caution. Legal scholars, members of both parties, the Boy Scouts, unions, other religions, and even a former Democratic attorney general, just to name a few, joined in our questioning. We no longer object, as long as it is fair.

We want to make the Child Victims Act stronger as part of our commitment to promote a society that does what we strive to do: acknowledge abuse, promote the healing process for innocent survivors, and establish financial compensation programs, if survivors choose to participate.

Once passed into law, here’s what else we know, as reported by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, in a recent story

A wave of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy will begin arriving soon in New York courtrooms and peak starting this summer. Big law firms are flocking to New York to take advantage of a new state law that eases stringent limits on who can file such suits.

The cases, which will number in the many hundreds at least, will lay bare new details of past horrors and could push some of New York's diocese to the brink of bankruptcy. What may be the first suit brought under the new law … is seeking $300 million for a single victim.

The state Attorney General’s investigation of church sexual abuse has given investigators access to private diocesan records that will document still more instances of sexual misconduct and could well reveal past efforts by church officials to shield abusive clergy from discovery.

Here’s where lawyers come into the picture. In my files, I found (and re-read) a column by Terry Donovan Urekew, who wrote a piece in 2004 for Commonweal. In it, he made the following point: 

Another element in the crisis is the potential for financial compensation. If I were to accuse my priest abuser, the class-action lawyers would make sure I ended up with a substantial sum of money. The going rate for clergy sexual abuse seems pretty high. My nonclergy abuser, however, probably wouldn’t end up paying anything to compensate me for pain, suffering, and the loss of my innocence. That certainly takes the choice out of my hands. Go for the dough! I know at least three persons who have made allegations against priests whose primary, more severe, abuse was at the hands of men who were not priests. Those other three men will never be prosecuted, will never pay for their crimes. You can be sure the priests will pay. And, ultimately, the Catholic people will pay. Each payment made to victims places more burden on us, the working and retired parishioners whose contributions support our church. 

This is not to say the church hasn’t brought this on themselves. Decades of covering up misdeeds by predator priests has led to all this. In a 2011 piece for the National Catholic Reporter, noted Vatican correspondent John Allen, now at Crux, wrote this: 

A decade into the arc of the crisis, we now have a new symbol of another of its distressing features: The way all Catholic priests have been tarred with the same brush, presumed guilty until proven innocent and often cut loose by officialdom at the first hint of an allegation.

That symbol is Fr. Kevin Reynolds of Ireland, and his is a story that merits serious reflection. Before getting into it, however, let's stipulate two points.

First, there’s no moral equivalence between the agony experienced by victims of sexual abuse, especially children, and the hardships of a falsely accused priest. The point is not to compare the two things, but rather, that you can't remedy one injustice by creating another.

Second, the fact that some priests have been falsely accused does not mitigate the culpability of the church, or its leadership, for scores of other cases in which the abuse is all too real. Nor does it supply a free pass to church leaders to dismiss criticism, or to wave off arguments for reform.

The allegations that Reynolds had raped and impregnated a 14 year old, a bombshell report by Irish broadcaster RTE after an interview with the victim, eventually turned out to be baseless. The priest later settled a defamation case and RTE apologized.

The story remains a cautionary tale. With lawyers more than happy to get on TV and provide quotes to reporters, coupled by fading memories by some of the victims in cases dating back decades, and the church finds itself in the middle of a storm it can’t easily get out from.

Allen concluded his piece this way:

Yet the Reynolds saga does illustrate the sad truth that innocent priests have too often been forced to pay the price for the church's corporate failures. Symbolically, Reynolds serves as a potent reminder of the dangers of a rush to judgment, which does no one any good – least of all, the victims of sexual abuse.

While some would argue that these allegations show the church is morally bankrupt, how journalists choose to cover these lawsuits — and whether the ones from many decades ago are to be believed or can even be defended in a civil court — means the church in New York could very well find itself on the road to financial bankrupt. 

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