Catholic Church Sex Abuse: What Is Suitable Compensation for a Life of Trauma?

COMMENTARY: The Church really needs to do some deep thinking on how it should respond.

A man sits alone inside a Catholic church praying.
A man sits alone inside a Catholic church praying. (photo: Tiwiplusk / Shutterstock)

If you had a choice between losing a limb or being psychologically traumatized your whole life, which would you choose? 

By “psychologically traumatized,” I mean suffering debilitating lifetime depression and anxiety, having difficulty holding onto a job, not being able to enter into satisfying personal and intimate relationships, unshakeable (and unwarranted) self-blame and even being rejected by family who don’t understand consequent behavior. 

Many sex abuse victims struggle with substance abuse throughout their lives, undergo repeated hospitalization, attempt or commit suicide, and many without anyone knowing why they were so troubled. Many of them live in poverty or near poverty their whole lives.

In addition, victims of priestly sexual abuse often lose their faith and are deprived of the healing and consolation that come through the sacraments and the rich spiritual life that faith facilitates.

It’s not a hard choice, is it? A prosthesis can go a long way to replacing a limb, but what can make up for losses accompanying psychological trauma? 

Some victims have been so traumatized they cannot even bring themselves to seek help. Many can’t handle the thought of what revelation of and revisiting of their abuse would be necessary for pursuing some kind of settlement.. Frequently victims have a terrible time getting information on how to proceed. Many times their requests for help are dismissed because they didn’t follow a procedure not known to them. 

Some dioceses have set up an Independent Compensation Fund, a process that has not pleased victims, in part, because the settlements require that no documents will be made public and thus it seems just another form of cover-up.

Dioceses seem too eager to put up huge sums of money for lawyers to defend them against claims and to lobby against laws meant to aid victims

Although there have been some substantial pay-outs, the Church seems often to pay a pittance to some victims – usually those without lawyers – and only after putting the victims through months if not years of agonizing attempts even to get a hearing.

The only site keeping track of settlements is Bishop Accountability, which hasn’t updated their figures since 2010. Responding to a Register inquiry over the updated settlement total for the U.S., the organization reported that by their estimates using public data the number is now more than $4 billion. That number, a representative clarified, is only for settlements of $1 million or more; smaller settlements and independent review board settlements are not included.

Certainly, many receive far less. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnson, Pennsylvania, allegedly devised this list of “levels of abuse” and payments: 

[L]evel one was considered above the clothing fondling with an alleged payment range of $10,000 to $25,000; level two is described as masturbation allegedly paying victims $15,000 to $40,000; level three is oral sex … would pay victims of child sex abuse $25,000 to $75,000; and level four would pay victims of child sex abuse $50,000 to $175,000 for alleged intercourse from priests and/or other religious leaders

Can you imagine? Child sex abuse victims of intercourse from priests receiving from $50,000 to $175,000, for the lifetime of misery they have almost certainly endured. Figures and comparisons are not easy to find but it seems undeniable that victims of public school employees receive much more. One article reports millions of dollars were given to abused students. 

Truly, even at the higher levels of compensation in the Church, few victims receive enough to compensate for therapy and for lost wages. And, of course, nothing can compensate for their very troubled lives. 

And we should note, many victims’ motivations are not so much for financial “gain” — in fact, some feel bad taking money from the Church, money that could help others. In the end they persevere to force the dioceses to take responsibility and to alert others who may have been abused and to protect the innocent from being preyed upon.

As I reported in a previous column, victims of priestly sexual abuse rarely receive decent treatment from dioceses or orders. They are often treated not as beloved sons and daughters of the Church but as greedy adversaries. The standard for compensation often seems to be how little a diocese or order can pay to get the victim to go away after signing a non-disclosure agreement.

Few seem to realize that funds to pay for therapy and lost income do not address all the needs of victims. I have heard of very few victims who have received assistance in finding ongoing spiritual direction. Certainly some have been blessed to find priests who assume the responsibility on their own, and some don’t want it, but many feel that the Church has abandoned them by not helping them find spiritual support or, indeed, never again inquiring about their well-being and sometimes even cutting them off from further communication.

Here I am going to recount the story of a man who qualifies as one who suffered abuse as a “vulnerable” adult, a term and category recently recognized by the Church. Such persons rarely receive any settlements, let alone significant ones. They may be the least cared for by the Church.

Brad’s story is horrible, though not among the worst, but still with debilitating lifetime consequences. It includes abuse by two priests and cover-up by two orders and two dioceses. 

Brad  (not his real name) was raised in a very dysfunctional home: His father, a veteran of World War II who likely suffered PTSD, was emotionally unavailable and emotionally abusive. Brad was abused by a priest (“Father A”) in the mid-1980s, when Brad, fighting substance abuse, had just returned to the Church. Father A, who had an advanced degree in counseling, surely recognized what made Brad vulnerable to abuse. The grooming included massages and sexual touching all done under the guise of “affirmative therapy” that Father A said God wanted him to provide to Brad. Brad’s therapist diagnosed that, although 23 at the time of the abuse, he, a virgin at the time, was only 12-14 in respect to maturity when the abuse occurred. The abuse took place in the parish of his youth. 

Brad considered the priest the only father he had ever had; over the years he suppressed memory of the abuse out of gratitude for the affection and attention he had received and only later realized how terribly exploitative the relationship had been and that it was the source of so much of the depression and anxiety he experienced over the years. It wasn’t until years later during therapy for anxiety and depression caused at least in part by the abuse, that Brad recalled the abuse. 

In 1990, Brad lived at the religious house of an order as he was discerning a vocation. He experienced sexual abuse by the priest (“Father M”) who was head of the discernment program. Father M groomed Brad over a period time, by taking him to plays and giving him presents (such as a skimpy swimsuit that Brad was made to model). The priest told Brad that as part of his healing they should share a bed. 

Brad has never experienced same-sex attraction and was surprised at the priest’s revelation that he himself was gay and that his gayness enabled him to be more sensitive to others. Brad was sexually abused by Father M while he was sleeping. Brad bolted from the relationship when Father M invited him to share a bath with him. He reported the abuse to Father M’s superiors, who lied to Brad several times about having removed Father M from ministry.

Brad was referred by his spiritual director to visit a popular priest who wanted to debrief Brad about his abuse. Eventually, Brad accepted an offer to work at the retreat house on Long Island, where the priest worked. 

After a few years, Brad discovered the “retreat” facility housed priests guilty of pedophilia. As part of his job Brad was assigned to do work that put him in regular contact with predator priests — one who had previously abused more than 60 boys. Brad was part of the protest by parents who living the vicinity of the retreat house concerned they had not been informed that pedophiles were living in proximity to their children.  

During the course of therapy and after many hospitalizations for depression, Brad decided to press for some settlements. Brad received $30,000 from the diocese in which the first abuse occurred and $60,000 from the order to which Fr. A belonged. 

When he reported the abuse he had experienced at the house of discernment to the diocese in which the abuse occurred, he was initially told by the judicial vicar for the diocese that he would likely be given $500,000 but that figure soon disappeared from sight; Brad has never received anything from that diocese. He did receive $85,000 from the order to which the abusing priest belonged. 

In 2018, the whole Theodore McCarrick situation triggered Brad again and realizing how inadequate the earlier compensation was, he asked for more and received an additional $190,000 from the orders. 

Note that neither the orders nor the dioceses denied the charges made against the abusive priests. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume they already knew the priests were abusive and were trying to prevent others from learning about their toleration of abusive priests in their midst.

Brad received a total of $365,000 but it is far from the $1.3 million that victims received on the average from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Keep in mind that Brad’s whole life was impacted by the abuse; Brad is a recovering alcoholic, he has experienced several prolonged hospitalizations for depression, and while he has had some periods of employment, for decades he has lived on disability. He is now 60 and takes care of his elderly mother. That has been his life. What compensation can make up for what he has lost in life?

The McCarrick Report has awakened in Brad anger that so many individuals to whom he reported abuse, failed to act to help him and protect others. 

Recently, Brad has been trying to report through the new system set up for greater accountability for bishops, the bishops who he believes failed to respond adequately to his abuse. He reported the abuse with full documentation in June and still has not had one response to his reports or follow up requests. Repeat: in over seven months he has not heard a word from the bishop reporting service publicized as the tool to create more adequate bishops’ accountability in the Church.  

The only bishop who has communicated compassionately and with sensitivity to Brad’s pleas for some understanding is Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas (who has no responsibility in this matter). Few can imagine how consoling it is for a victim simply to be responded to with respect — and fatherly love —- from a Church official. 

The Church needs to do some deep thinking on how it should respond to sex abuse victims. Were bishops really doing their jobs and trying to be true fathers to sex abuse victims, likely laypeople would be willing to donate to funds to provide substantial compensation that could at least ease the trauma suffered by those abused by priests? Who can deserve our love and compassion more?

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Welcome to Post-Roe America

Every year on the anniversary of Dobbs, Catholics will be able to deepen their understanding of God’s role in the conception of every child, his care for the child’s growth, his knowing each by name, and the future for which he has given each child life.