Compensation Funds Offer Path to Justice for Abuse Victims
In the wake of the August grand jury report that documented decades of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the state, several dioceses in Pennsylvania have taken steps to establish a victim compensation fund. The report estimated that hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania molested over 1,000 children since the 1940s.
In early November, the Dioceses of Philadelphia, Scranton, Harrisburg, and Allentown announced programs that will compensate survivors who were sexually abused by priests in the Catholic Church. The announcements did not mention a total dollar amount for the funds or their maximum potential individual payouts. Participation in these programs will be voluntary.
Five of the dioceses have hired veteran compensation fund coordinator Ken Feinberg to map out and oversee their programs. The Philadelphia fund has set a filing deadline for claims at the end of next September, with Harrisburg and Scranton expected to begin their programs in January. Payouts and total fund amounts will not be disclosed by the dioceses, and church officials will have no say in decisions about eligibility or payout amounts, said Camille Biros, Feinberg’ co-administrator. Feinberg and Biros ran similar victims’ compensation funds set up by five New York dioceses in recent years. There was 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 stated.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese said its program would be overseen by a three-person committee, including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, former interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge and Lawrence Stengel, a retired federal judge. It plans to sell properties but will not dip into money for charities, seminaries, donor-designated gifts or donations to parishes, ministries or schools. Allentown, which has not hired Feinberg and Biros, said an independent board will oversee an administrator’s decision about compensation. Harrisburg said its program will be funded by its reserve, unrestricted accounts, investments and its insurers. Scranton said its fund will be paid with reserves and it will sell assets and borrow money as needed to compensate sexual abuse survivors. Scranton also stated that no contributions or donations made by parishioners will be used to fund this program.
The August report identified nearly sixty priests in the Diocese of Scranton as child sexual abusers. Bishop Joseph Bambera stated that, “Providing compensation to these survivors is the right thing to do. Several weeks ago, Pennsylvania’s bishops announced support of such a program, which was recently discussed but not enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Diocese of Scranton is, therefore, moving forward and is offering this program for survivors.”
Ben Andreozzi, an attorney who represents dozens of victims in each of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, said such funds can be helpful. But, he said, they can also avoid full disclosure of what occurred, do not help victims whose abuse had nothing to do with the Catholic Church and typically deliver less money to a victim than a lawsuit. “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.”
There is also one major catch to the compensation funds. “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. Many are also worried about being subject to non-disclosure agreements. The compensation funds should not silence survivors, nor should it prevent them from having their day in court, if that is the route they choose.
Pennsylvania is still reeling from the publication of the August grand jury report. The Catholic Church has a long way to go before reparations can be made to survivors of priest sexual abuse. The hope is that the establishment of these victim compensation funds will begin the healing process, and provide survivors and their families with the tools they need to move forward.
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