Diocese bankruptcy is a win for the church says victim of priest abuse

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Richard Tollner of Rensselaerville spoke in 2018 of how his soul was seared when he suffered sexual abuse as a teenager at the hands of a priest he had trusted.

ALBANY COUNTY — The bankruptcy filing by the Diocese of Albany this week is so familiar it could almost be parable.

It’s the fifth of its kind in the state since 2019, when lawmakers triggered a wave of abuse lawsuits against the dioceses by temporarily expanding the statute of limitations on those crimes.

But for Rensselaerville resident and alleged victim of priest abuse Richard Tollner, anyone looking for a moral center in that story will be disappointed. 

Tollner is one of hundreds of people with pending litigation against the Diocese of Albany, which he says helped protect the priest who abused him, Alan Placa, by conducting an overly long, sham investigation into Tollner’s claims, falsely concluding by the end that there was not enough evidence to support them. 

That litigation is now on hold because of the bankruptcy filing, Tollner says, just as his suit against the Diocese of Rockville Center, with which Placa was affiliated at the time Tollner says the priest abused him, has been on hold ever since that diocese declared bankruptcy in October of 2020. 

What Tollner sees in this chain of bankruptcies is not years of covered-up crimes taking their toll, but a powerful institution finding new ways to avoid accountability as the legal threat becomes more salient. 

“It’s a continuance of the diocese policy of not looking out for sexually-abused Catholic boys and girls,” Tollner told The Enterprise this week. 

What the diocese achieves by declaring bankruptcy is more time, Tollner says, and time is what is proving very difficult for victims of sexual abuse who have yet to see their abusers held accountable. 

“Imagine this,” he said. “I worked on the Child Victims Act pro bono for 12 years  … The Child Victims Act took over 13 years to come into law. It’s now been in law for four years … Everybody’s in their 16th year of waiting for justice. Now the Albany Diocese is declaring bankruptcy. When’s the time arriving for victims here in Albany? How many more years?” 

Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger insisted in a statement on March 15 that the “Chapter 11 filing is the best way, at this point, to ensure that all Victim/Survivors with pending CVA litigation will receive some compensation.”

The bankruptcy, he said, will allow the diocese to get a handle on its remaining assets and devise a more straightforward path toward settling the cases. 

In its bankruptcy filing, the diocese states that it has between $10 million and $50 million in assets, and between $50 million and $100 million in liabilities across 200 to 999 creditors. 

The diocese also explains in the filing that, in accordance with Canon Law, any organization that operates under the Church umbrella independently owns its own assets.

The director of communications for the Albany diocese, Kathy Barrans, told The Enterprise this week that the diocese does not receive money from the Vatican and that 75 percent of its operations are funded by money received through the Diocesan Appeal.

Because of this relative independence, the parishes and schools and other entities that comprise the Diocese of Albany — which spreads across a 14-county region — are not responsible for paying toward the diocese’s debts, the filing states. 

In addition to the Child Victim Act suits, the Albany diocese is being sued over the collapse of a pension fund that was connected to the former St. Clare’s hospital in Schenectady, according to the filing. 

But, while the conversation now is almost entirely centered around finances — how much the diocese has, what it can or is willing to give to victims — Tollner says that money was never the point, which makes the bankruptcy filing all the more cynical.

“The first thing [I want] would be open testimony for all victims who want to speak,” Tollner said. “As for compensation … there’s not enough money on the planet to compensate all the abuse victims out there for their pain and suffering.”

But, as the New York Times reported when the Rochester diocese filed for bankruptcy — the first in the state to do so — a diocese declaring itself bankrupt changes victims’ path through the legal system so that, rather than argue that the diocese is guilty of wrongdoing, they instead are dealing with the financial aspect in what could be seen as a forced settlement process.

Speaking on the importance of testimony, as compared to settlement payouts, Tollner referenced the USA Gymnastics case in which nearly 200 women testified against the team’s physician, Larry Nassar, who was convicted on a variety of sexual crimes in the late 2010s. 

“You can imagine that they got a form of justice, having the world know what happened,” Tollner said. “Open testimony is education, education is power, power is prevention … That’s the first thing on the minds of most sex-abuse survivors, is not to let this happen to somebody else. That’s why we report it.”

Barrans told The Enterprise that the diocese “understands the healing value of listening to stories,” and has been holding Hope and Healing Masses since October to give those who have experienced abuse the chance to share their stories

“Our goal has been to share the message that help is available to all, even those who still suffer in silence, and we are finding, through these Masses, that people are still suffering in silence,” Barrans said.

“At each Mass, so far, at least one person has come forward,” she said. “Some say they want to share a simple message with no follow-up; others ask for follow-up with counselors and we help to make the needed connections.”

Barrans said the next Hope and Healing Mass will be held in Amsterdam on April 30, with other details yet to be finalized.

“Their thoughts deepen our knowledge on how to proceed and may encourage others to seek healing in their own way,” she said. 

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