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Bishops back victim fund over abuse lawsuits in Pennsylvania

In this Oct. 1, 2017, file photo, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, enters in procession to St. Mathew's Cathedral before the Red Mass in Washington. On Aug. 14, 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury accused Wuerl of helping to protect abusive priests when he was Pittsburgh's bishop. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Roman Catholic officials in Pennsylvania began lining up quickly and publicly with a key state legislative ally in backing the creation of a victims’ compensation fund as an alternative to allowing victims in decades-old child sexual abuse cases to sue the church in court.

Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico said he would collaborate in the creation of a compensation fund that is administered by a neutral third party, while the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Harrisburg and Allentown dioceses suggested they are open to the idea.

Allowing lawsuits to be heard in courts, however, would force bigger payouts by the church and force the church to disclose more about clergymen who preyed on children and a church hierarchy that helped cover it up, say victim advocates.

A fight over the competing ideas could arrive in the state Legislature next month, on the heels of a state grand jury report released this month that said about 300 clergymen had sexually abused at least 1,000 children over seven decades in six dioceses.

The report prompted new calls for changing state law to allow adults abused as children to sue in court, even if they had been barred by a prior time limit in law.

It is a change in state law that bishops have successfully fought in recent years, even as a handful of other states have opened such windows to let victims sue the church.

Catholic Church officials maintain that such a so-called “reviver” law is unconstitutional in Pennsylvania, although legal scholars disagree over the question. Current law gives victims of child sexual abuse until they turn 30 to file a lawsuit.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese said Wednesday (Aug. 29) it has paid more than $10 million in recent years to help hundreds of victims, “regardless of whether their claims are barred” by time limits in state law.

“Thus, we are receptive to any fair and reasonable program to help victims whose cases are barred,” it said in a statement.

The state Senate’s top Republican floated the idea Wednesday of a compensation fund, although the chamber’s top Democrat said church officials privately had been discussing setting up a $250 million fund well before.

However, the grand jury and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro urged the Legislature to change state law to provide a two-year window for victims to sue, and many lawmakers expect the state House of Representatives will approve such a provision after voting sessions resume in September.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which speaks for all the state’s dioceses, declined comment on whether it had discussed a $250 million compensation fund or whether it opposes a two-year window.

University of Pennsylvania professor Marci Hamilton, a veteran plaintiffs’ attorney in child sex abuse cases who heads the Philadelphia-based CHILD USA research organization, said it is fine to create a compensation fund similar to one in New York, but it is also necessary to allow victims to sue.

“These compensation funds are no substitute for real justice, which is what you get with a retroactive window,” Hamilton said.

In New York, the public has learned little about abuse cases, given the number of victims who have been paid, Hamilton said.’

The Archdiocese of New York said last year that its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program drew more than 200 applications through its Nov. 1 deadline, with compensation totaling $40 million on 189 claims.

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a veteran Minnesota-based plaintiffs’ attorney in child sex abuse cases, said courts promise more transparency, more protection for children and more money for victims.

“They would get a fraction of what they could recover in a court of law,” Anderson said.

One Catholic lawmaker, Sen. John Yudichak, D-Luzerne, said he would worry that legislation that attempts to help victims by allowing them to sue is challenged and struck down by the courts. A safer bet might be a compensation fund, Yudichak said.

“Perhaps this is the best way we can respect the rule of law and respect the rights of victims who want to seek justice for the crimes that have been committed against them,” Yudichak said.

(Marc Levy writes for The Associated Press)

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  • I am leery of any “solution” that allows secrets to be kept. For some victims of child sex abuse, part of the compensation is the acknowledge in public that they have been wronged, the naming of the person who committed the abuse, and the story of their struggles as a result of the abuse. And, very particularly in cases of sex abuse, it is important that those who covered up the abuse be identified. It isn’t just the money – it is also the acknowledgement of a wrong committed and the pain suffered.

    More, it is the story told in public, heard on the news, that informs the community of something amiss within their community. This is true of both the local civil community and the parish/diocesan community. Secret agreements in which wrong doing and wrong-doers are not aware leaves the larger community uneducated as to evil in their midst and therefore subject to the same evil.

    Get rid of secrecy unless the person abused wants it. We need to know who committed abuse and who covered it up if we are to be assured our laws are adequate and our local law enforcement are acting to protect us all and that the institutions involved are dealing with prevention and reporting.

    Public disclosure is also necessary for the parish and diocese. We need to examine how we respondas a parish community to those who come forward from and tell their story of abuse. How well have local parishes supported those members who were/are abused? We need to know that our priests and bishop are aware of the dangers of child sex abuse and will not cover it up even if the abuser is a priest or bishop. Isn’t it sad that this oversight on our own priests and bishops is necessary? But it is. Oh, yeah, it really, really is.

  • “We bishops are all appalled at these revelations of criminal conduct and will do everything in our power to….settle out of court for ten cents on the dollar.”

  • The bishops and their allies appear to be interested in placing the 1/3 slice the vampire attorneys take into the pockets of the folks that were harmed instead.

    The “settle out of court for ten cents on the dollar” sling appears to arise from a non-factual, perhaps anti-Catholic, animus.

  • “I am leery of any “solution” that allows secrets to be kept.”

    That’s one vote for “let’s shovel the dirt” and against “let’s see if we can get some bucks into the pockets of those harmed”.

  • Apparently not.

    We’ve got three votes for “screw giving victims money, let’s keep digging around and feeding attorneys”.

  • Another first-rate observation, Monica.

    My suspicion is that although the money is part of it–although probably a lot will be covered by insurance–even more significant is the negative publicity. For example, will private settlements include a non-disclosure clause–as so many other private settlements by the church have?

    I believe the bishops primary concern is protecting the church.

  • So any comment advocating public disclosure is anti-Catholic? Is that what you are saying?

    YOUR comments show you wish to protect the church at all costs.

  • I’ve heard about the ” insurance ” the dioceses allegedly have – but no details.

    Which ins co’s are underwriting this horror ? I don’t think we’ll find out.

    I don’t believe there is any ” insurance ” and the Church is paying these damage settlements out of existing funds – but don’t want the fact
    known as to how liquidly wealthy ($$$$) the Church is.

    That knowledge would certainly make the collection plates less susceptible to the force of gravity.

    There is a runt-of-the-litter hydrocephalitic- homunculus – hack on the payroll of the RCC who haunts the comment section of RNS, minute-by-minute.

    If he doesn’t – or can’t name the name(s) of the insurance underwriters – then we can correctly deduce – that the RCC is paying these claims from it’s own treasury !

    An admission that the RCC is the cash-richest institution the world has ever known….

    While hundreds of millions worldwide are starving….

  • The reason you don’t read any details about insurance companies is the same reason you don’t read any details about Ford Motor Company’s insurance.

    Anyone can look up settlements or bankruptcy proceedings in whatever court has jurisdiction and see the allocations between insurance companies, dioceses, and individuals. There are no secrets.

    Btw, you and other “hang’em high” proponents – alwayspuzzled, ATF45, Ben in Oakland, Elagabalus, monicadeangelis – who’ve posted on this purposely avoid the fact that courts lack a time machine to go back to 1940 or 1980 and collect the damages from the perpetrators.

    The diocese’s money comes from parishioners, cemetery funds, and charitable organizations who have done no harm to anyone.

    In other words, the motivation is hatred of the Church itself.

  • Not all of “justice” is money in the pocket. Part of justice is having the truth be told, being heard, seeing the one who did wrong be shown/known for the harm that was done.

    What is also important in this issue of sexual abuse is bringing the public into knowing the problem of sex abuse exists, it is widespread, and it is even in the institutions most of us have considered safest – our religious institutions. Parents need to be more aware and alert, and we need to keep our eyes on our laws and our legal systems to better handle the problem. For example, the people in every state, but especially Pennsylvania, need to watch what their legislators do now to improve reporting laws, improve laws penalizing those who fail to report suspected abuse, and especially look at how to address institutional coverups. Those coverups occurred in all kinds of religious organizations, in children’s clubs, in sports clubs like the Olympics and university associated sports programs.

    Truth is, Bob, where would we be in understanding the breadth and depth of the problem without the lawyers pushing the diocese and pushing DA’s and judges so that we know the depth and breadth of the problem? We need to lawyers to overcome the barriers to making the problem known.

  • Anyone interested in the truth can read the grand jury report.

    Giving 1/3 of the proceeds to multi-million dollar attorneys to find out Fr. Schmitz in 1952 abused and died in 1962 does not accomplish “justice”.

    Justice renders to each and to all what belongs to them.

    “What is also important in this issue of sexual abuse is bringing the public into knowing the problem of sex abuse exists, it is widespread, and it is even in the institutions most of us have considered safest – our religious institutions.”

    Anyone who does not know that already is not going to be informed by trials and rewarding attorneys 1/3 of the proceeds.

    I do not believe for a millisecond that is justice.

  • Bob, I don’t like the idea that 1/3 of the money goes to lawyers, either. But, I do like the idea that 1) many more people are receiving compensation for the harm done to them than they would have if no lawyers were used; 2) it is these lawyers who are making the abuse known and creating an atmosphere where those who remained silent for so long feel they can come forward. More it is all the publicity that is making society aware of the size of the problem so we can address it in laws and by that awareness better protect children and vulnerable adults.

    Don’t forget, too, the tens of millions (hundreds of millions??) the dioceses have all spent on the lawyers they hired to keep them from having to pay or, if they paid, to keep all of it secret. You may bemoan the fact that victims lawyers get paid so much, but don’t forget that the lawyers defending the diocese, bishops, priests are also making an excellent living while working on these cases.

    It would be nice if justice did not require lawyers. But it does. I suggest if you want lawyers to get less that you encourage bishops to open their files and go public with the history they know about, that they encourage victims to go public and that they don’t let lawyers try to grind victims into the dirt in “defending” the parish or priest. It wouldn’t cost so much if they supported victims in going public and supported laws that made justice possible for them and for victims.

  • Discovery is one of the most important aspects of lawsuits. Plaintiffs frequently settle for large sums rather than have their dirty laundry exposed.

    The dirty laundry should be made known. (Which is why corporations are lobbying hard to unilaterally impose individual arbitration and bar lawsuits.)

  • That many more people are receiving compensation for the harm done to them than they would have if no lawyers were used does not appear to be in evidence.

    The proposed fund would allow folks, sans attorneys, to obtain compensation without suit.

    The dioceses are required as stewards of the parishes, charities, cemeteries, and retirement funds in their charge to use attorneys. The insurance companies require it as a condition of insurance among other things.

    I don’t “bemoan” the fact that victims lawyers get paid so much, I simply note that the most prominent among them – Jeff Anderson for example – are becoming fabulously wealthy running what amounts to an extortion scheme.

    If there is $100 million available, and he takes $33 million, that’s $67 million for victims.

    “It would be nice if justice did not require lawyers.”

    In this case an offer is on the table for justice sans lawyers.

    I understand you and your friends really really really want to get access to private files so you can excoriate this bishop, that priest, the Church in general for another generation or five, but that’s not justice.

  • Re: “…want to get access to private files so you can excoriate this bishop…”

    What you need to see, Bob, is that publicizing the information informs the general public about a problem in society and tells all those other victims who have remained silent that they are not alone in having experienced abuse and they can tell their story. I would hope that this publicity would also give those not abused an awareness that they need to stand with those who were abused, to not remain on the sidelines, not be indifferent, and not feel they have to take sides. Too many Catholics have remained silent and impassive.

    This is about creating a path to justice. Bishops need to be the ones creating that path but we have seen them be absolutely unable to do so.

  • If you think any sentient being in the USA is not aware of this problem in society, you are living in an alternate reality.

    Justice would be to reimburse those injured appropriately.

    That is NOT what you and some of the others are describing.

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