NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic diocese in New York's suburbs on Long Island, one of the largest in the United States, on Thursday filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing the cost of lawsuits filed by sexual abuse victims, compounded by COVID-19 pandemic economic losses.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre said the move was sparked by the expense of dealing with a wave of more than 200 lawsuits filed by childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse.
New York state's Child Victims Act, which took effect in August, temporarily enables victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits over decades-old crimes.
"What became clear was that the diocese was not going to be able to continue to carry out its spiritual, charitable and educational missions if it were to continue to shoulder the increasingly heavy burden of litigation expenses associated with these cases," Bishop John Barres said in a video posted on the diocese website.
The Catholic church abuse crisis exploded onto the international stage in 2002 when the Boston Globe newspaper revealed priests had sexually abused children for decades and church leaders had covered it up. Patterns of widespread abuse of children have since been reported across the United States and around the world.
In Rockville Centre, Bishop Barres said the Chapter 11 filing would not immediately affect the operations of parishes and schools, because they are separate legal entities, although the diocese as a result would have less money to share with them.
"The financial burden of the litigation has been severe and only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic," Bishop Barres said. "Our goal is to make sure that all clergy sexual abuse survivors, and not just a few who were the first to file lawsuits, are afforded just and equitable compensation."
Barres assured parishioners that their church offerings would not be used in any lawsuit settlements.
Child protection remains a priority for the church, he said.
"Our diocese underwent extensive reforms in 2003, with the creation of our Office for the Protection of Children and Young People. We will continue to be vigilant in our commitment to child protection," Barres said.
Bankruptcy was filed on the advice of experts who "presented us with the best options given the strains on our finances and the unanticipated financial impact stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic," Barres said.
The diocese, which serves more than 1.4 million Catholics on Long Island, in 2017 started a program aimed at providing healing and financial settlements to childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse. Barres said on Thursday it has compensated more than 300 survivors.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Editing by Franklin Paul and Rosalba O'Brien)