The Diocese of Santa Rosa has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the face of potentially hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits.

Bishop Robert Vasa had announced Monday’s filing was imminent in a media release Friday.

“This decision was made necessary due to the number of child sexual abuse lawsuits filed against the Diocese over the course of the past three years,” Vasa said in the release.

Those suits were made possible by a 2019 California law that opened a three-year period during which victims of alleged childhood sexual abuse could file lawsuits that were otherwise prohibited under existing statute of limitation rules.

That period ended in December 2022 and since then the Diocese of Santa Rosa learned that it could be facing more than 200 such suits, Vasa said.

“These cases are too numerous to settle individually and so they have accumulated until the closing of the three-year window,” he said.

A new wave of allegations

This is the second wave of sexual abuse lawsuits that the diocese has had to face, according to Vasa, who said that it has already paid out roughly $35 million in settlements.

“Now, facing at least 160 new cases, with excess property depleted, with insurance for many of the years either non-existent or exhausted, it is impossible to see any way forward without recourse to the bankruptcy protections our country makes available,” Vasa said Friday.

Vasa said the decision allows the diocese, under court supervision, to bring all the parties together in one place to resolve the “claims fairly and finally.”

“A bankruptcy allows the Diocese to deal with all these issues collectively rather than one at a time,” he said Friday. “At the same time, the process provides a way for the Diocese to continue the various charitable ministries in which it is engaged.”

“These cases are too numerous to settle individually and so they have accumulated until the closing of the three-year window.”

Bishop Robert Vasa, Diocese of Santa Rosa

The decision by the diocese to seek those protections doesn’t sit well with victims and their lawyers who have been working through the legal process for years in some cases.

Attorney Jeff Anderson said the filing is an “ill-fated” effort by the diocese to shirk its obligations to the victims who suffered sexual abuse.

“This is a pattern already revealed in San Diego and other states where the statute of limitations was previously opened,” said Anderson, whose firm represents 78 survivors of alleged abuse in the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Anderson said in a news release Monday that the diocese is also facing a lawsuit over allegations that it has transferred assets in a bid to avoid accountability.

“Same old story, hide the offenders, the assets, and the truth about what they knew,” Anderson said.

Vasa denied that claim Monday. “I can only say that nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Pagransen on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.