Buffalo Diocese facing backlash for seeking federal funds, relief in CVA cases
By Cayla Harris
Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse are denouncing the Buffalo Diocese this week after the institution, temporarily headed by Albany Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, moved forward with two legal filings that activists say diminish victims’ experiences and could allow the diocese to dodge consequences for decades of alleged abuse and cover-up.
The most recent filing on Tuesday was a lawsuit against the federal Small Business Administration for denying the diocese’s application for relief under the CARES Act because of its ongoing bankruptcy proceedings. It followed a separate legal action on Saturday in bankruptcy court, in which the diocese argued that all cases filed against the institution under the state’s Child Victims Act, including those that also name local parishes and schools, should be permanently suspended.
Last summer, the act opened a one-year “look-back” window allowing survivors of sexual abuse to pursue previously time-barred cases against their alleged offenders. The Buffalo Diocese, the most-named defendant in claims filed under the act, is facing more than 250 actions.
“The Buffalo Diocese should not use the current pandemic as an excuse to evade responsibility for the decades-long abuse of children,” said Michael Polenberg, the vice president of government affairs for the victims advocacy group Safe Horizon. “Every survivor of childhood sexual abuse deserves to hold offenders – including negligent institutions – responsible for their actions. That is the promise of the Child Victims Act … and that’s what survivors deserve.”
All lawsuits lodged against the diocese have been frozen since February, when the institution filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows for reorganization of assets instead of liquidation. Some cases that also name separate Catholic entities where the abuse allegedly occurred would typically be allowed to move to trial at a later date – a move the diocese said would open the door to a cumbersome and costly discovery process.
Buffalo Diocese spokesman Greg Tucker declined to make Scharfenberger, who took the helm of the scandal-plagued diocese in December, available for an interview on either topic.
On the federal stimulus funds, Tucker said the institution decided to sue the SBA because it “exceeded its authority” in denying money to an organization moving through bankruptcy proceedings. The CARES Act “makes no reference to disqualifying applications on the basis of an entity in Chapter 11 reorganization,” he said.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and CVA sponsor, said in a statement Tuesday that the lawsuit “is just the latest example of the church failing to take responsibility for decades of egregious misconduct. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
In reference to the proceeding in bankruptcy court, Tucker said suspending all cases would allow the diocese to negotiate settlements “without the distraction of piecemeal litigation” and would also make the payouts more equitable for all survivors, not just those who filed first.
“While the process continues, any lawsuits against the diocese are halted to allow the diocese and its creditors to come to agreement on settlement terms,” he said. “The action that the diocese recently filed is intended to provide the same ‘breathing spell’ for parishes, schools and other Catholic entities in the hopes of achieving a global resolution.”
Stacey Benson, an attorney with the Manhattan-based law firm Jeff Anderson & Associates that represents several plaintiffs suing the Buffalo Diocese, said the filing was an “unnecessary legal tactic (that) is insensitive to survivors of child sexual abuse who have already been deeply harmed by the abuse they suffered, as well as by the actions and inactions of top diocesan officials.”