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Editorial: Courts shouldn’t delay justice for sex abuse victims

Editorial: Courts shouldn’t delay justice for sex abuse victims

Filing bankruptcy is a predictable, but no less despicable, legal maneuver to delay justice
Editorial: Courts shouldn’t delay justice for sex abuse victims
Marchers in New York City advocate for passage of the Child Victims Act.

They’ve delayed justice for their victims long enough.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court shouldn’t let them get away with it any longer.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester last week became the first, but no doubt not the last, of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses to file for bankruptcy protection to protect its finances from the impact of lawsuits brought by sex abuse victims under the state’s new Child Victims Act.

So far, the Albany Diocese, which covers our area and like others has been subject to multiple lawsuits, has not filed for similar protection, but the idea is no doubt being seriously considered there.

The most potent and potentially damaging provision of the Child Victims Act for the church and other organizations that protected abusers and hid their crimes is the one-year look-back window, in which victims can seek civil damages beyond the normal statute of limitations for bringing such cases.

For about the past 12 years, big organizations like the church and the Boy Scouts used their big bank accounts and big financial clout to fend off this legislation, until the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally relented to pressure from victims, advocates and the media to pass the law in February. It took another six months for the look-back window to take effect.

The organizations lobbying against the bill meant that victims had to wait more than a decade beyond when they were abused to even get the opportunity to sue for damages.

Now, with the Rochester Diocese setting the pace in New York, the church is using the people’s own court system to further delay justice and to limit financial compensation to victims. 

A bankruptcy filing halts all action on the civil suits that have been filed and shifts those claims to the bankruptcy proceeding while the courts and the organizations sort out assets, liabilities and other matters.

Filing bankruptcy is a predictable, but no less despicable, legal maneuver to delay justice while allowing church functions to go along unhindered.

Exactly how much longer victims will have to wait and how much money they’ll eventually receive in compensation is largely now in the hands of the federal Bankruptcy Court, which has a lot of control over what happens next.

The court should act as quickly as possible to do its due diligence in determining the status of the dioceses’ assets and liabilities so that a final number on the amount of money available to victims can be set. In negotiations, the court must take a hard line, recognizing that the decades-long cover-up of clergy abuse and the 12-year legal fight against the Child Victims Act has allowed the church to build up, redistribute and protect even more of its assets from victims’ claims.

In the 19 cases in which church dioceses around the country have sought bankruptcy protection for similar reasons, cases have taken from two to four years to litigate in the courts. Only one bankruptcy claim, in San Diego, Calif., was dismissed. 

Who knows how long the church and other organizations will try to drag this process out in order to avoid or delay paying claims. 
If history is any indication, the answer is, “as long as they possibly can.”

Victims have waited long enough for their day in court, and the bankruptcy judges need to make this unique situation a priority and not let the church and its lawyers drag these cases out any longer than necessary.

By taking a tough stance and expediting the proceedings, the court would send a message to other organizations like the Boy Scouts and schools that also condoned and covered up abuse that they can’t use the court system to delay their own responsibility for the damages they’ve caused.

There are other businesses that are on the hook for compensation to victims, by the way, including the insurance companies that cover these organizations.

Gov. Cuomo recognized that and took a step last week to ensure they don’t contribute to a delay or reduction in compensation, sending a letter on Thursday reminding companies of their obligation under the law to cover victims and to ensure the intent and letter of the Child Victims Act is followed. Any action on the part of insurance companies to avoid their obligations and delay damages will make them culpable in this scheme.

The church and other big organizations that protected sex abusers, hid them and allowed them to continue their acts of depravity brought this financial crisis upon themselves. They deserve no sympathy for the financial position in which they now find themselves and no leniency or flexibility from the courts.

Bankruptcy protection should not further deprive victims of the compensation they’ve long sought and deserve. The courts should not allow themselves to be used as pawns in this dangerous game.

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