The Cathedral of Christ the Light, the main cathedral of Oakland's Catholic church diocese, and which resides next to the city's Lake Merritt, is a glass and wood structure, surrounded by cement entryways.
The Oakland diocese today filed for bankruptcy, saying that its liabilities in sex assault claims exceeded its resources. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The Oakland Diocese of the Catholic Church filed for bankruptcy protection this morning in federal court due to the hundreds of lawsuits filed against it for alleged sexual abuse by clergy and other staff in cases that date back decades.

In a letter released to its parishioners and the media, Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, who is the head of 80 parishes where as many as half a million East Bay Catholics worship, said that after “considerable consultation and much prayer,” the diocese filed for bankruptcy to continue to support its services. East Bay churches and schools will continue to run normally, as they were not part of the bankruptcy filing.

“We made the filing because we believe this process is the best way to support a compassionate and equitable outcome for survivors of abuse,” Barber said.

Victims of sexual abuse, many of whom are part of victim advocacy groups such as the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), say that bankruptcy is a way for the church to hold onto its considerable wealth and withhold secrets.

SNAP, which has worked with victims and their lawyers to expose the names of priests who abused children, said in an email today that the Oakland diocese owns hundreds of acres of land and other properties in Oakland, Piedmont, Lafayette, and Orinda it could sell to pay off victims. 

“We’re looking at a typical playbook of the church when it comes to shielding its assets but more importantly [showing they’re] not being willing to go the full way of accountability and transparency,” Mike McDonnell, SNAP’S communication officer, told The Oaklandside. “From a survivor’s perspective, it’s another glancing blow to their face, adding to injury and pain that they have harbored for many years.”

The bankruptcy allows the diocese to pause all legal actions filed through state courts and moves them to federal bankruptcy courts. There, all victim’s claims will be represented by a committee appointed by the United States Trustee Program, which operates under the federal Department of Justice. A judge will decide what amount of money to distribute to victims of sexual abuse once all diocese assets are evaluated. 

Victims say that the bankruptcy filing also allows the diocese to avoid the discovery process in individual sexual assault lawsuits. Not allowing, or pausing document discovery and depositions would make it more difficult for victims, and the public, to learn, for example, the names of the Diocese staff who moved the dozens of credibly accused priests from parish to parish over the years, continuing to expose children to them. 

“We believe Bishop Barber does not want these men testifying under oath. He does not want to reveal how many times Bishop [Floyd] Begin, [Oakland’s first Bishop], appears in his secret files,” SNAP’s statement reads. “Bishop Barber does not want the public to know how Fr. [George] Crespin—himself accused multiple times of abuse—managed the many complaints he received while Vicar General.” 

Bankruptcy appeared like a likely course of action after Barber wrote a March letter detailing to followers the Diocese’s difficult financial position. Combined with years of lower attendance and fundraising among churches and parishes, the high number of sex assault lawsuits against it exposed the East Bay Catholic church to massive financial liabilities “exceeding its resources.” Mass attendance has dropped in the Diocese by half since 2010. 

The Oakland Bishop, alongside eight other California Bishops, filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court last year seeking to repeal Assembly Bill 218, which was passed in 2018 by the state legislature. AB 218 extended the statute of limitation, allowing victims of childhood sexual assault to file lawsuits against the church for abuse that happened many years ago. The Court did not take up the bishop’s case last year, allowing the law to stand. 

In the 2010s, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed two similar bills that would have also extended the statute of limitations for sex assault lawsuits. 

In a letter to employees this week, Bishop Barber wrote that diocese assets would be used to pay for all administrative and ministerial operations during the restructuring period. Retirement funds, the letter said, are held in trust and not accessible to claimants. Staff salaries will also not be impacted, nor do they expect layoffs. 

In a separate letter to priests, the diocese wrote that any money given by parishioners during Sunday Mass or other services would be used to pay for operations and not for any sex assault claims.  

According to Barber, at least 330 people have filed sex assault lawsuits against the Diocese alleging they were sexually abused by priests and other staff. Barber said most of the alleged attacks that have surfaced in the claims occurred in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, taking place in churches across Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 

In March, the Diocese of Santa Rosa filed for bankruptcy because it said it could not pay for settlements with more than 130 victims of sexual abuse that go back more than 60 years. Other dioceses across the country, including New York, have also filed for bankruptcy after being sued by victims of sexual assault. The Diocese of San Diego is exploring bankruptcy and has said it could cost more than $500 million to settle cases with more than 400 alleged victims.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.