SYRACUSE — The Diocese of Syracuse announced Friday it will re-organize in Chapter 11 bankruptcy as it faces an incoming tide of lawsuits related to alleged abuse by local priests over decades.
Bishop Douglas Lucia was installed last year to lead the central and northern New York Catholic community following the retirement of Bishop Robert Cunningham after Cunningham’s 10 years in charge. On Friday, Lucia spoke to assembled media regarding the bankruptcy filing — a move already employed by the dioceses of Rochester and Buffalo.
"Without the re-organization, the diocese and claimants will face a slow, unpredictable and costly process that would require years of court involvement," Lucia said. "Such a protracted process would delay justice for victims and only prolong their pain and suffering.”
More than 100 lawsuits have been filed against the diocese in New York Supreme Court via Onondaga County under provisions of the state Child Victims Act (CVA). The CVA allows victims to sue their abusers even if the statute of limitations had expired. The clock began ticking Aug. 13, 2019 on a one-year look-back window, but that has been extended five months by executive order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A bill to extend the look-back window another 12 months have been passed by both houses of the state Legislature but awaits Cuomo’s signature.
For Port City Catholics, local clergy says the bankruptcy filing will have “no immediate effect” on any parish.
“This is a move by the diocese to make sure we take care of everybody who was hurt by these sexual predators, and not just those who got there first,” said Father John Canorro, who leads Oswego’s Christ the Good Shepherd parish. “We’ll know more about this process when it gets underway, but right now there’s no impact on Mass schedule or schools.”
Of the hundreds of plaintiffs and complaints against the diocese, at least three name Oswego-based priests alleged to have engaged in sexual abuse during their time in the cloth.
Father Chester A. Misercola, who died in 2019, allegedly abused three separate minors at Bishop Cunningham Catholic High School, formerly known as Oswego Catholic High School, according to documentation provided to The Palladium-Times. Father William J. Kiefer, who died in 1990, is accused of abusing a minor in 1945 and 1946. This is the first time Kiefer’s name has been connected publicly to abuse. Father John F. Harrold allegedly abused a minor in 1981 at St. Mary’s of the Assumption. Harrold was dismissed from the priesthood but his whereabouts are currently unknown.
“That is a public safety hazard,” said Cynthia LaFave, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs with claims against the above listed priests. “Hiding abusive priests, shuffling them around and losing track of them — that’s the type of practice survivors are trying to change.”
LaFave is working along with Jeff Anderson Associates, one of the nation’s leading firms representing child sex abuse plaintiffs. Together, the firms are representing nearly 40 of the cases pending against the diocese, the bulk of which were filed this week.
“These cases allege abuse by a number of clerics in the Diocese of Syracuse, and they allege a pattern of culpability in covering up abuse and engaging in longstanding practices to protect clerics instead of children,” LaFave said.
The Child Victims Act is ushering in an age reckoning for dioceses across the state, but LaFave says there’s still “many more than have come forward” who haven’t exercised their new rights.
Among the most insidious practices alleged by plaintiffs against the diocese is the existence of a covert discipline system within the church, where abusers were “moved from diocese to diocese, parish to parish and allowed to continue to commit criminal sex acts against children.”
“(Abusive priests) were not prosecuted or turned over to authorities,” LaFave said. “The survivors fundamentally want truth and justice. They were abused by people they were raised to trust, confide in and view only as second to God. The diocese for years has concealed information and survivors want this information to be made public.”
The desire for truth and reconciliation in a public forum is a driving force behind many plaintiffs, but the diocese’s bankruptcy filing may threaten that process despite the claims they are not doing intentional harm.
"I want to be very clear that this action is not to hinder claims by victims of sexual abuse. It's just the opposite," Bishop Lucia said. "It seeks to establish a process to which claims will be treated in a just and equitable way."
Complaints against the diocese will now presumably move to bankruptcy court, which attorneys for plaintiffs say is “all about dollars and cents and compensating victims” and greatly limits the type of documents and information the diocese must provide.
“A courtroom is a truth-seeking mechanism,” said attorney Michael Pfau, whose firm represents more than a dozen individuals seeking damages against the church. “Survivors testify, priests testify, bishops testify then records are disclosed, shown to juries and made public.”
Instead of 100 different cases seeking different damages, bankruptcy court would group all complaints and divide up assets as settlements are reached.
“The challenge this situation presents our diocese is simply that one jury award could so diminish our assets that we would have little or nothing to resolve the other claims or carry on the important ministries of the diocese,” Lucia said.
Pfau says more than the money, his clients want accountability.
“They want the public to know how so many children were abused for so many decades,” Pfau said. “What the bishop and the diocese lawyers fail to understand is: coming forward, telling their story and having their day in court is very, very important.”