Stephen A. Donato, an attorney who represents the Buffalo, New York Catholic Diocese, indicated the state’s Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit against his the church is no more than a “publicity stunt.” He also suggested it may have violated bankruptcy court rules that are in place to protect bankrupt entities.
Donato told Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki that the diocese sought to settle the lawsuit over allegations of priest sexual abuse filed in November of last year. He also said that the diocese already implementing the majority of recommendations the Attorney General’s Office had requested to protect children from sexual predators.
“With the utmost respect, I don’t even understand why this lawsuit was commenced, other than maybe a publicity stunt,” Donato said at a recent hearing, adding the diocese already is doing the “lion’s share of all of what the attorney general has asked for.”
In an affidavit submitted to the court, Bishop Michael W. Fisher said, “The diocese is concerned that the attorney general seeks to exercise state control over internal church operations, contrary to protections under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”
The suit has accused Catholic diocese leaders of not doing their due diligence in following up with reports of sexual misconduct and of protecting more than two dozen priests by allowing them to continue to serve in their positions rather than referring the alleged abuse cases to the Vatican for it to determine whether they should be removed from the priesthood. The AG’s case is seeking a court injunction requiring the diocese to “investigate all abuse accusations, inform the public of credible allegations and enact and enforce policies to prevent a culture of protecting abusers,” according to court records. There are no monetary damages being requested.
“Our lawsuit speaks for itself. Individuals who are victims of abuse deserve to have their claims timely investigated and determined, which the Diocese of Buffalo refused to do. We remain steadfast in our work to ensure transparency and accountability throughout the dioceses of New York State,” said Morgan Rubin, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office.
The creditor’s committee that represents survivors of childhood sex abuse in the Buffalo Diocese’s bankruptcy case is opposing efforts by the church to hire additional attorneys. Advocates for survivors have pushed back against these requests, arguing it shouldn’t be litigating against protections for childhood sexual abuse survivors. “The committee very seriously questions why the diocese is going to oppose this in any way, shape or form,” said Ian Scharf, attorney for the committee of unsecured creditors, which consists survivors.
If it is true that most of what the attorney general is seeking already is in place, “that does not take a law firm charging $800 to $900 an hour to negotiate,” added attorney Richard Weisbeck, who represents nearly thirty plaintiffs in Child Victims Act cases against the diocese and other Catholic entities. He said, “The current attorneys should negotiate the settlement, which should be easy, given that all these remedies supposedly are already in place.”