Skip to main content

San Francisco archbishop accused of ‘breathtaking lack of empathy’ in bankruptcy filing

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Easter Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco on April 12, 2020. | Source: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and teachers harshly criticized the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s decision to file for bankruptcy during a public call Thursday with the local archbishop.

Over roughly three hours of discussion, victims and their family members described how their experiences as children haunted their adult lives. At times, they said the archdiocese demonstrated a lack of transparency and commitment to reaching an equitable settlement with them.

The tele-meeting was the second public call between the Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and a committee of creditors representing survivors who filed suit against the local Catholic district.

In an opening statement, Cordileone condemned sexual abuse and said the victims' stories had left him “moved and deeply saddened.”

“These acts have no place in any society—especially within the church, where there should be a greater sense of security and compassion,” he said. “I pray every day for continued healing for all survivors in hopes that they might find the peace they deserve.”

But victims said the very decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy had denied them the opportunity to have their stories heard in court.

Madeline McFeely, a survivor and member of the committee, called bankruptcy a “soft landing” for the archdiocese. 

“It seems to me that although you profess understanding, your actions, the actions of the bankruptcy do not demonstrate that,” she said. “In fact, it seems that there is a breathtaking lack of empathy.”

Mountains of Cases

In August, the Archdiocese of San Francisco announced it was filing for bankruptcy under the weight of more than 500 lawsuits over childhood sexual abuse. 

Cordileone framed the decision as an attempt to reach a fair and equitable settlement with the victims.

“It was clear, with 537 settlements to make, that we would not have the resources for it,” he said.

Had the archdiocese not filed for bankruptcy, Cordileone said, the first few survivors would have received very large settlements and “there would have been nothing left” for the others.

But victims called that explanation into question. 

In her comments to the archbishop, McFeely said the victims do not know for certain that the archdiocese could not pay for all the settlements because its assets are obscured in many ways.

Instead, she said, the decision to pursue bankruptcy simply denied them their voice.

“I have to submit to you that a Chapter 11 in no way represents fairness or equity, the phrase that you use over and over again,” McFeely said.

Horrific Stories of Abuse

Victims also asked about measures the archdiocese has taken to prevent future child abuse by its employees.

Cordileone said he appointed three people who work on this issue and that the archdiocese now uses fingerprints and background checks to screen employees and volunteers who work with children. 

If an allegation of abuse is leveled against an employee, the archdiocese first reports it to the civil authorities and then to its own internal coordinator, he said.

Anyone accused of abuse is removed from active ministry, he added. If the allegations are found credible, the accused party is permanently removed from ministry. The archdiocese also carries out educational programs for children and adults to prevent abuse, Cordileone added.

As victims questioned the archbishop, they often introduced themselves by telling their own stories of abuse.

“Archbishop, I’ve heard you tell the story that you received your calling to become a priest while on a college retreat,” Margaret O’Driscoll said. “My last experience of a Catholic retreat was when one of the priests from my Catholic high school attempted to rape me when I was 16.”

She asked Cordileone whether he would be willing to work with the committee to create a way for victims to come forward and publicly tell their stories—the opportunity they say the bankruptcy took from them.

Cordileone said the formalities of bankruptcy proceedings prevent that from happening, but he would be open to the idea at a later date.

“I also want abuse survivors to know that I keep a list of their names on the altar of my chapel for which I offer prayers for their healing and peace every day,” he said.

Some victims asked Cordileone to take their experiences seriously. 

Steve Moreno recounted how, after being abused by a priest at St. Martin of Tours School in San Jose, he “sleepwalked” through 40 years and made multiple attempts to take his own life.

“I even missed my sister's wedding because the pastor who presided over it was my abuser,” Moreno said.

The past 10 years have been a “journey of incredible healing,” Moreno added, but the Catholic Church was not there for him.

“So the question is: Will you bring closure, dignity and respect to us as children of God and also members of your diocese?” he asked.

“I'm committed to doing all I can to achieve that goal,” Cordileone said. “I praise God for your healing.”