Harrisburg diocese files for bankruptcy, apologizes to abuse victims


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Harrisburg diocese held a news conference Wednesday, officially announcing its bankruptcy filing and further apologizing to victims who were sexually abused by clergy.

Bishop Ronald Gainer and diocesean attorney Matthew Haverstick addressed the situation and how it plans to move forward.

The bankruptcy filing is one of at least 20 others across the country seeking help from creditors through the federal bankruptcy system.

“This plan will allow us to continue the church’s work in our diocese while equitably compensating our creditors,” Gainer said.

He said the decision was made after hours of prayer, consultation, and deliberation with financial experts, attorneys, and church officials.

Gainer said that prior to sexual abuse allegations, the diocese was already struggling financially. “Our diocesan financial position was unhealthy,” he said.

The diocese anticipates further lawsuits after legal changes allowed those who were sexually abused to revisit their cases up to 55 years of age from 30.

Gainer said the diocese did not have any viable solutions other than bankruptcy and that it served as its last resort.

“We do not have many concrete answers at this point regarding what our diocese might look moving forward, because we are just beginning, obviously, the bankruptcy process,” he said.

Gainer offered an apology on the diocese’s behalf for the abuse victims suffered and his “deepest regret that the diocese did not do more to protect you.”

The bishop maintained the diocese is working towards ensuring that similar situations never happen again. He closed with a parable of how the diocese is without a strong foundation but will have one after this “difficult process.”

Haverstick clarified that the bankruptcy filing will not impact daily practitioners’ short-term lives.

“Tomorrow in the diocese is going to look exactly like yesterday in the diocese. Church is going to be open. Schools are going to be open. The charitable [organizations] are going to continue in the diocese,” he said.

Haverstick said all claims that exist until a determined point, set by the bankruptcy court, will be set against a trust funded by assets from the diocese and insurance proceeds. Future claims will also be handled in bankruptcy courts, he says.

“The parishes are not in bankruptcy. The schools are not in bankruptcy,” Haverstick said.

He maintains that parishes are separate corporate entities from the diocese, which means they operate financially independent of whichever diocese they are in.

When asked about the financial jeopardy the Survivor’s Compensation Fund may have put the diocese in, he said:

“The Survivors Compensation Fund was a good faith effort to do the right thing and try to help survivors of abuse, who were abused by priests in the diocese. It was, of course, everyone’s expectation that that fund would be a good faith and a fiscally responsible way to try and care for those survivors and not starve out the rest of the diocese from doing all the charitable works it does.”

Haverstick said the Rice case and ruling in New Jersey, extended the possibility of massive liabilities which the diocese does not have the capacity to absorb. He also said he believes this is just the beginning of a national trend to the Catholic church, other religious organizations, charities, and nonprofits.

“This is the alpha, not the omega,” he said.

Haverstick advocated that bankruptcy often gets a bad reputation but allows the diocese to be held accountable and operate responsibly.

“[Bankruptcy] is a good faith effort to try and get an organization that doesn’t want to skip out on its bills, who wants to be responsible about going forward and putting itself in a good financial position. The breathing room and the assistance to do so,” he said.

He continued on the benefits of filing for bankruptcy and how it is beneficial to all parties involved.

“I think its the most responsible thing that we can do for victims and survivors and for the people who were supported by the diocesan charities and for all the faithful in the diocese. it’s an attempt to try and do right by everybody,” Haverstick said.

Bishop Gainer said more information will be released in the coming days and months. He provides some additional insight on the diocese website here.

“Over the coming days and months, we will be releasing additional details as we chart a new path for the future of our diocese,” Gainer said.

Multiple bishops sought Vatican approval to file for bankruptcy protection preceding the early 2000s when abuse allegations in Boston spotlighted the clergy child sexual abuse scandal, though none had followed through.

22 U.S. dioceses and religious orders, including one in Guam, have filed for bankruptcy protection, according to the group BishopAccountability.org.

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