Some survivors of Buffalo Diocese clergy sexual abuse expressed anger Friday after the diocese filed for bankruptcy because they fear they will be denied their day in court.
The filing halts the discovery process of Child Victims Act lawsuits in state court and moves the cases to U.S. Bankruptcy Court. That means survivors will probably not have the opportunity to testify in court, nor will church officials necessarily be compelled to testify or to provide decades of files on the abuse cases.
“They just stole every chance at justice we had,” said David Harvey, one of 260 people who have filed suit against the diocese. “I was 8. I was repeatedly raped by a priest who said he would kill my brother if I didn’t go along with it. My life was destroyed.
“The idea that I’m not going to be able to testify, that we’re reduced to creditors – it is just a tragedy that we’ve been put through this, reduced to victims again. Really, the church has just won again.”
Attorney Steve Boyd, who is representing dozens of clients suing the diocese, said it is not yet clear whether the diocese’s records related to the abuse will be made public. Such records have been released in the course of similar diocesan bankruptcy proceedings in a few dioceses, including Milwaukee and Duluth.
There can be discovery in bankruptcy proceedings, he said, but it is limited to information relevant to plaintiffs establishing that a diocese had prior knowledge of a priest abusing people, which would point to the diocese being culpable for later abuse by that priest.
“There’s a fight ahead over the records,” Boyd said.
The Buffalo Diocese listed total assets of $44.9 million in its most recent financial statement and liabilities of $20.5 million. In addition to plaintiffs in clergy abuse lawsuits, the diocese listed nearly 300 other creditors in its court papers.
In other diocese bankruptcy cases across the country, the average payment to victims has ranged from $33,790 in Fairbanks, Alaska, to $1.38 million in San Diego.
Some survivors say their lawsuits are not about the money.
“Who the hell wants money from someone who raped them?” Harvey asked. “What would I do? Buy a house? Every time I walked into the house, it would remind me of the rape.”
“I am angry, frustrated," said Kevin Koscielniak, who has accused the Rev. James Burson of abusing him in 1979. "They just took everything away for us being able to get to the truth. Does that sound like they really care? We care about having our stories heard. We don’t care about money.”
He called on Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger to open up the diocese’s files regardless of what happens in court, so that survivors and the public can learn the truth about what the church knew about hundreds of abuse cases.
“Scharfenberger says he wants to do the right thing," Koscielniak said. "So open it all up, regardless of bankruptcy. Show everyone in Buffalo that you really do care.”
Some Catholics in the area say that they still believe in the church, despite the clergy abuse.
A small group of worshipers, including attorney Michael McHale, attended a lunchtime Mass Friday at St. Joseph’s Cathedral downtown. He views the diocese’s bankruptcy filing as a necessary step toward paying the survivors what they are owed.
“I don’t see it as a ducking mechanism,” he said. “I think the church has a duty to make the victims whole.”
John Hurley, a vocal member of the local Movement to Restore Trust, said that once the volume of Child Victims Act cases became apparent, it was clear the diocese was headed toward filing for bankruptcy.
“In a lot of ways it’s a sad day, once again for the victims of sex abuse. But it’s a sad day for the Catholic church in Buffalo,” said Hurley, president of Canisius College. “This is an institution that has done so much good in health care, human services and education.”
An attorney, Hurley practiced bankruptcy law for 16 years. He said that some of what the survivors seek may still emerge in the bankruptcy process, and some likely will not.
“Would there be a chance for the claimants to be heard in some fashion? Yeah, there could be. Would they be able to get records on each of their cases? Probably,” he said. “To have someone grilled on the stand as to who knew what and when about each individual case, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”