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Rochester diocese bankruptcy case: 500 sexual abuse claims are on the table

Steve Orr
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

A year after Rochester's Catholic diocese filed for bankruptcy protection, private talks continue toward a resolution, with 500 claims for compensation from sexual abuse victims at the top of the agenda.

The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019, saying it could not afford to pay the compensation being demanded in a flood of new civil suits alleging sexual abuse by church ministers in past decades.

Since then, a battalion of lawyers has met in person and via videoconference to move the case slowly forward. The lawyers have so far billed the diocese more than $3 million in legal fees for their efforts.

The diocese's purpose in filing Chapter 11 was to pull together funds to pay abuse claimants while the diocese retained enough assets to continue operations. 

Rochester was the 20th American Catholic diocese to follow this path, all of them driven there largely by litigation over sexual abuse. Seven other dioceses have filed Chapter 11 since Rochester, including the dioceses in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rockville Centre, Long Island.

The Roman Catholic Diocese Rochester offices on Buffalo Road in Rochester.

Companies that insured the dioceses over the decades typically provide the bulk of the money to pay sex abuse claimants, and that is expected here.

In a letter to parishioners last month to mark the one-year anniversary of the filing, Bishop Salvatore Matano said discussions with insurers were about to begin, with the help of a court-appointed mediator.

"This begins part of the process to determine the funds available to settle claims and negotiate reasonable settlements," he said.

Still to be resolved is the impact of the sexual abuse claims on the diocese's parishes and affiliated organizations, such as Catholic Charities. They are separately incorporated and the diocese has insisted that they are independently operated.

But parishes and affiliates have been slammed with hundreds of separate legal claims over the alleged abuse of children by the priests who worked for those entities.

Discussions have been underway about resolving those claims, too, as part of the omnibus settlement of the diocese's Chapter 11 case. It remains to be seen if that happens and if the parishes and affiliates are required to contribute to the settlement fund.

In his September letter, Matano said only that "should not be directly affected."

Five hundred claims

When the diocese entered bankruptcy, its leaders said they was aware of about 200 lawsuits and other child sexual abuse claims against diocesan ministers.

Abuse survivors were given until mid-August to submit additional claims. When the deadline had come and gone, diocesan leaders found the weight of legal claims was far greater than they had feared.

"While even one claim of sexual abuse committed by anyone who violated his or her position of sacred trust would be intolerable, quite disturbingly approximately 500 claims were filed, a number extremely troubling," Matano wrote in his September letter.

He said he expected the total to be decreased by about 20% due to duplicates and claims that are the responsibility of other parties.

Leander James, an Idaho lawyer with much experience in clergy child sexual abuse cases, said he found the number of claims filed in Rochester both surprising and alarming.

On top of the 500, he noted, there are many survivors who chose not to come forward or who have died. 

"My concern for Rochester and communities around it is that the level of abuse — the numbers and the amount of abuse I’m seeing — is such is that it gives me concern about the generational impact of that on the communities and nobody has analyzed that, nobody has looked at that,” he said. "“Abuse 30 years ago is manifesting itself today in the victim and his or her children. The ripple effect becomes small waves then bigger waves then big waves."

James said people who were sexually victimized as children are more likely than others to be left with serious emotional and behavioral problems — alcoholism, drug abuse, low self-esteem, estrangement from others, criminality, a tendency toward self-harm.

The cumulative impact of that many child sexual abuse victims and their difficulties can be "very profound," he said.

A call to Bishop Clark

Still to be determined is whether information about those 500 claims and the Catholic ministers they accuse is made public as part of the settlement.

It's also not clear what will be done with some 43,000 pages of internal sub secreto files that the diocese has given to lawyers for the abuse victims. The files can be used to verify claims and to judge whether past diocesan leaders tried to hide the predatory behavior of some priests.

Such material has become part of the public record in some other diocesan bankruptcy proceedings, meant to help answer questions that have lingered for decades about the actions of church leaders.

A story related by one claimant is a sterling example of the revelatory material that might be found in the sub secreto files and claims records.

The story is that of a man who alleges that in 1981, when he was a 13-year-old altar boy, he was sexually assaulted by Gerard J. Guli, then a diocesan priest assigned to St. Margaret Mary Parish in Irondequoit.

Hurt and distraught, the boy turned to the one party he thought could help him — Bishop Matthew Clark.

The man has filed a claim against the diocese in the bankruptcy case, which is private. But he also filed a civil complaint last week against the parishes where Guli worked, and that complaint is public.

The allegations speak to the loss of faith that can accompany child sexual abuse and, if proven, are clear signs of the sort of cover-up that critics say was commonplace.

Within a few days of the assault, the boy called the diocese and asked for Bishop Clark.

"The bishop actually got on the phone,” related the man’s lawyer, Kelly Wolford. "He knew who he was. He recognized his voice.

"He tells the bishop he was sexually assaulted. He was very direct about what happened. That’s when the bishop told him he was not to say anything to anybody about it, and he was not to be an altar boy any longer and he was to stay away from Father Guli.

"He doesn’t know what to do so he tells the bishop, thinking he’ll get some help. When he doesn't get any help, he’s lost," Wolford said.

Nothing further happened. Police weren’t summoned, and Guli continued to work in Rochester-area churches until 1989, when he was arrested for sexually abusing an elderly woman in a nursing home. Guli, who has been accused of sexual abuse of minors a number of times, later left the priesthood.

The diocese, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Clark, who retired in 2012, lives in a church infirmary in Pittsford and is said to be in poor health.

Wolford said her client, who filed his lawsuit anonymously and declined to speak with a reporter, has very clear memories of the episode.

"It’s like it happened yesterday. It’s the day that changed his life forever. How do you forget the day that changed your life forever?"

Contact watchdog reporter Steve Orr at or at (585) 258-2386. Follow him on Twitter at @SOrr1. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. If you don't already have a digital subscription, please sign up today.