Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth bishops announced on Monday (Dec. 7) they filed for emergency bankruptcy protection following a jury verdict last month that held the Minnesota diocese responsible for more than half of an $8.1 million judgment on behalf of a victim of sex abuse by a priest.
This diocese serves 10 counties in northeastern Minnesota and is expected to continue operating as it is reorganized under Chapter 11.
Father James Bissonette, the vicar general of the Diocese, issued the following statement on behalf of the Diocese: "There is sadness in having to proceed in this fashion. After the recent trial, the Diocese again attempted to reach a mutually-agreeable resolution. Up to this point, the Diocese has not been able to reach such a settlement, and given the magnitude of the verdict, the Diocese was left with no choice but to file for reorganization. The decision to file today safeguards the limited assets of the Diocese and will ensure that the resources of the Diocese can be shared justly with all victims, while allowing the day-to-day operation of the work of the Church to continue.
This decision is in keeping with our approach since the enactment of the Child Victims Act, which has been to put abuse victims first, to pursue the truth with transparency and to do the right thing in the right way."
The Chapter 11 filing makes Duluth the 13th of nearly 200 U.S. Catholic dioceses to file for bankruptcy since 2004 because of the clergy sex abuse scandals, according to a Religion News Service article.
The plaintiff, in this case, is a 52-year-old man who was a 15-year-old altar boy when the abuse happened in 1978.
The abuser was the Rev. James Vincent Fitzgerald, a priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate religious order. Fitzgerald, who is deceased, took the boy on a trip to Minnesota in 1978 and reportedly sexually assaulted him for two weeks. Jurors who deliberated the trial last month said the diocese failed to supervise the priest and said that it should have known he was dangerous.
The Duluth award was one of the highest single monetary compensations for a survivor of clergy abuse, experts said. The case partially was made possible due to a Minnesota law that lifted the statute of limitations on civil claims for sex abuse.
The diocese has an annual operating budget of nearly $3.3 million. Church officials said that even with insurance and savings, it could not cover its $4.9 million shares of the overall award and that no resources would be available for the other abuse victims who have brought claims.
Recent research estimates the Catholic Church in the United States has paid between $3 billion and $4 billion in awards, settlements and abuse-related costs over the past 65 years, according to RNS.