HARRISBURG, Pa. — Seven of the eight Roman Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania will create compensation funds for victims of clergy sex abuse, following a grand jury inquiry into abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the state.
“The damage done to innocent young people and their families by sexual abuse in the past is profound. It can’t be erased by apologies, no matter how sincere. And money can’t buy back a wounded person’s wholeness,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said in a Nov. 8 column for CatholicPhilly.com.
“But what compensation can do is acknowledge the evil done and meaningfully assist survivors as they work to find greater peace in their lives,” he said.
The archdiocese-funded reparations effort will pay “the amounts that independent claims administrators deem appropriate,” he said.
According to Archbishop Chaput, the program is about more than compensation of victims.
“It’s also about apologizing to victims, recognizing the harm the Church has done, and continuing the critical work to ensure abuse is prevented,” he said. “I deeply regret the pain that so many victims carry from the experience of sex abuse. I hope this program will bring them a measure of peace.”
In August a Pennsylvania grand jury report claimed to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests. It presented a devastating portrait of efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure or cover up allegations, either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.
The accusations concerned incidents that are often decades old. Most of the priests accused of abuse have died.
Some bishops named in the report for alleged cover-up of abuse have had their names scrubbed from facilities that were named for them.
The Pittsburgh Diocese, headed by Bishop David Zubik, also announced a new fund.
“It is my hope that a program to compensate survivors of abuse by clergy will continue to aid in their healing and the healing of the Church, the Body of Christ,” Bishop Zubik said Nov. 8.
“The survivors’ compensation program we are working to establish will be designed to create the best opportunity for recovery and healing to survivors,” he added. “They continue to suffer as a result of their abuse, and this program will help to provide for their ongoing needs.”
The fund aims to compensate survivors who would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations from seeking a civil settlement. The Pittsburgh Diocese compared it to its previous program launched in 2007. It said no funds will come from Catholic Charities, parishes, schools, donor-designated contributions or the campaign “Our Campaign for the Church Alive!” that is intended for specific capital and endowment needs.
“While sources for funding needed to establish the program are still being settled upon, the program will ensure transparency and the disclosure of all allegations to law enforcement,” the Pittsburgh Diocese said.
Bishop Zubik will hold listening sessions around the diocese to share details of the program and details about “other actions that will support the healing of survivors and the protection of children in the Church.”
The Pittsburgh Diocese is undergoing a “comprehensive review” of practices related to children and young people by Shay Bilchik, an expert on child sex abuse prevention and prosecution.
Bilchik is a former Florida state prosecutor and administered the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The Survivors Compensation Fund will address the needs of victims regardless of the time frames currently in place for the statute of limitations for civil law suits. This expedited process will enable eligible victims of minor sexual abuse to be heard and compensated,” the Greensburg Diocese said in its Nov. 8 announcement.
Diocesan, not parish assets, will finance the fund. Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros of the Law Offices of Kenneth R. Feinberg, PC, will be the independent fund administrators.
Feinberg and Biros will administer the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s compensation fund, as well.
Archbishop Chaput said that the total number of claims and funding required cannot yet be known, but he said the financial commitment will be “significant.” Existing archdiocesan assets will provide initial funding, but additional funding will need to come from borrowing and the sale of archdiocesan properties. It is not yet determined which properties will be sold.
In the last three years, Philadelphia Archdiocese finances have returned to the break-even point, after a period of severe deficit spending and underfunding financial obligations.
Archbishop Chaput emphasized that the fund is “entirely independent of the archdiocese” and “confidential.”
“The program is designed to help survivors come forward in an atmosphere where they are secure and respected, without the uncertainty, conflict and stress of litigation,” Archbishop Chaput said.
The independent oversight committee for the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s reparations fund includes former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who will chair the committee. He will be joined by Kelley Hodge, former interim district attorney for the city and county of Philadelphia, and Lawrence Stengel, a retired federal district court judge.
While Catholic leaders stressed the independence of how the reparations would be determined, it still drew criticism from abuse victims and their advocates.
“If I do something wrong, I don’t make my own punishment up,” Martha McHale, a clergy sex-abuse victim from Reading, Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Neither should they.”
Victims who accept payments from the funds must give up their right to sue if the Pennsylvania Legislature temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on sex-abuse lawsuits. In the last legislative session, a bill that would open a two-year window allowing abuse victims to file lawsuits concerning decades-old claims passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives but the Pennsylvania Senate did not hold a final vote.
“It’s a brilliant political move by the bishops,” said Benjamin Andreozzi, a lawyer for several clergy sex-abuse victims in Pennsylvania.
“This is exactly what happened in New York. The dioceses there probably resolved 90% of their outstanding civil claims for pennies on the dollar,” Andreozzi told the Inquirer, comparing the fund to those established in the New York Archdiocese.
Feinberg told the Inquirer that victim-compensation funds are more cost-effective and result in quicker compensation for victims, compared to lengthy litigation. He cited the three years to reach a settlement following the 2015 bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who was abused by a priest as a teen, is the chief backer of the Pennsylvania legislation and plans to bring it up for consideration when the next legislative session begins in January.
While he said compensation funds are a positive step, he said retroactive lawsuits should be an option for sex-abuse victims, the public radio station WITF reports.
The only Roman Catholic diocese in the state not to announce a new fund, Altoona-Johnstown, cited its victim-assistance program started in 1999. That fund has provided compensation and counseling to nearly 300 individuals, including $2.8 million for counseling. It said a newly created youth-protection office will aid in recognizing, responding to and reporting suspected sex abuse of minors.
The sex abuse of young men aged 18 and older has also become a focus in 2018. The allegation of credible sex abuse of a minor against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick prompted former seminarians to come forward saying he had sexually abused them as adults.