Victims’ Compensation Funds Created for Abuse at Multiple Pennsylvania Dioceses
Seven Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania said Thursday that they have taken steps to set up victim compensation funds. This comes three months after a grand jury report documented decades of child sexual abuse by priests in the state. The report was released in August and estimated hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.
The Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Scranton, and Allentown dioceses issued public announcements, and an attorney for the Greensburg Diocese is also involved. The Erie and Pittsburgh dioceses are also setting up funds but were not ready to disclose details, and. Altoona-Johnstown set one up in 1999.
Five of the dioceses have hired longtime compensation fund coordinator Ken Feinberg to map out and oversee their programs. The Philadelphia fund will begin taking applications next week, setting a filing deadline for claims at the end of next September, according to Fienberg’s co-administrator, Camille Biros. Harrisburg, Erie, Greensburg, and Scranton are expected to begin their programs in January.
“For the most part, they’re telling us, ‘We want to get this done, so whatever it takes to get these resolved,’” Biros said.
Payouts will not be disclosed by the dioceses, and church officials will have no say in decisions made, according to Biros. The dioceses said their sources for the money include borrowing, property sales, investments and insurers.
A legislative effort to change state law to allow a two-year window for people to sue in abuse cases that are otherwise too old to pursue passed the state House, but it was blocked by Republican state senators. Opponents, including Catholic bishops and the insurance industry, expressed concerns about the cost.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, said a deal is likely to be made by the end of 2018. “And if not, we’re going to be back at it next year,” Rozzi said.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office had overseen the abuse investigation, said lawmakers should enact the window along with other changes to state law that the jury recommended, including eliminating time limits on criminal prosecutions for sexual abuse of children, clarify penalties for failing to report child abuse, and banning confidentiality agreements that prevent victims from speaking with law enforcement.
According to the AG, the grand jury “recommended that victims deserve their day in court — not that the church should be the arbiter of its own punishment. These undefined compensation funds do not give a pass to lawmakers — the Legislature should return to Harrisburg, do their jobs and pass the grand jury’s four reforms.”
Ben Andreozzi, an attorney who represents dozens of victims in each of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, said such funds can be helpful. However, “The biggest drawback in a fund like this is that it does not force the institution to come clean with all the information that it has regarding the abuse,” Andreozzi said. “And oftentimes the victims don’t get fair market value for their claims.”
Feinberg and Biros ran victims’ compensation funds set up by five New York dioceses in recent years. They put no cap on payouts, but $500,000 is the most paid out to one individual, Biros said. “I think that the programs in New York have been very well received, and we’re hoping the same will be true for the Pennsylvania dioceses,” Biros said.
There is one major catch, however. “If survivors participate in the program and receive compensation, they will sign a settlement agreement. They would then forgo any future rights to bring a lawsuit against the Church,” Harrisburg diocese spokesman Mike Barley. This means, if the abuse continues to occur to the same individual or a family member, they cannot bring new allegations against the church. This may be a concern for some would-be recipients.