Amid a renewed furor over the Catholic Churchs handling of clergy sex abuse, several of Pennsylvanias Catholic dioceses, including Philadelphia, announced plans Thursday to launch programs to financially compensate victims whose claims are too old to be taken to court.
Though many details on the so-called reconciliation and reparation funds remained hazy — including just how much money is up for grabs statewide and where it would come from — victims and their advocates warily welcomed the idea.
Some whose claims have long been barred from courtrooms by civil statutes of limitations found hope in the prospect of finally receiving compensation for abuse they endured decades ago.
This fall, the state House approved the bill by a wide margin. But it stalled in the state Senate, where President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, proposed victims compensation funds as an alternative plan. The alternative, supported by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the insurance industry, would operate outside of the courts.
Clergy sex abuse victims slam Catholic church plans for compensation funds
Earlier this year, when Attorney General Josh Shapiro released the findings of a grand jury investigation into clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania, he underscored one key recommendation issued by investigators.
Victims who had long ago been sexually abused by priests should be given a retroactive reprieve during which they could file lawsuits against predators, the grand jury said.
That recommendation seems destined for the dustbin for now. Pennsylvania lawmakers havent been able to agree on changes to state law that would allow victims to go to court.
And the decision by virtually every diocese investigated by the grand jury to establish victims compensation funds is drawing the ire of the states top law enforcement official and clergy sex abuse victims.
Diocese of Allentown to create compensation program for clergy abuse survivors
Its now clear that the Dioceses acknowledge the Grand Jury accurately unearthed horrific and extensive abuse and cover up and, as a result, victims deserve compensation no matter when their abuse happened, Shapiro said Thursday. However, the Grand Jury recommended that victims deserve their day in court – not that the church should be the arbiter of its own punishment.”
The Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg and other dioceses, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, announced Thursday that they would create victim compensation funds.
The grand jury report implicated six Pennsylvania dioceses in the widespread abuse of children and concealment of crimes. Victims and advocates say that a compensation fund would fall short of addressing the needs of all adult victims who were sexually abused as children.
The victims fund does absolutely nothing for the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse survivors whose abuse has zero to do with the Catholic Church, said Kristen Pfautz Woolley, who was abused for two years starting at the age of 10 by a friend of the family.
None of the dioceses have disclosed how much money would be put invested into the compensation funds, but the money reportedly will not be drawn from the donations that parishioners make to their churches regularly.
The announcements of the funds follows a failed, months-long effort by victims and their advocates – as well as lawmakers in the Legislature – to reform the statute of limitations to allow victims timed out of the legal system to have a day in court. Under state law, victims must pursue criminal cases by the age of 50 and civil cases by the age of 30.
“The Diocese of Allentown deeply regrets the pain caused by the abusive actions of some members of the clergy. Compensation alone cannot repair the damage caused to those who were harmed by clergy. This program will meaningfully assist in recovery and healing for victims and survivors, and for their families,” the release says.
With few exceptions, almost all cases unearthed by the 18-month-long grand jury investigation fall outside the bounds of the statute of limitations.
The fund is a way to escape accountability, it simply protects the Catholic Church from lawsuits,” Woolley said. “All child sexual survivors deserve their day in court to face their perpetrator and any institution who knowingly and intentionally covered the abuse up. Victims heal from speaking their truth and taking their power back.
Benjamin Andreozzi, an attorney who is working with victims from each of the dioceses that were investigated by Shapiros office, said he had spent the day on the phone with victims, explaining to them the compensation program.
Many clients have already decided that they want to give the claims program a try, although they are not optimistic that they will be treated fairly by the church, said Andreozzi, who also represents victims in the Archdiocese of New York. After all, the program is an example of the criminal determining his own sentence.
The release issued Thursday by the diocese says plans to fund the program are underway and a timetable for implementation will be released in the future.
For some people the fund may help to get them back on their feet, he said. But for many others it feels like the doors to justice are being slammed shut in their face.
State investigators found that bishops and church officials for some seven decades had turned a blind eye to some of the most horrific cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, often concealing the crimes from the public and law enforcement.
Rudy Miller may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RudyMillerLV. Find Easton area news on Facebook.
Among their four suggestions, investigators recommended that the statute of limitations be reformed so these victims could have a short window for legal recourse.
These undefined compensation funds do not give a pass to lawmakers – the Legislature should return to Harrisburg, do their jobs and pass the Grand Jurys four reforms, Shapiro said Thursday in a written statement.
The Legislature this fall failed to reach a compromise on legislation that would have reformed the states child sex crime laws. Victims and their advocates were pushing for a retroactive component in the law, but that proposal met widespread opposition in the Senate.
The Republican-controlled state Senate in October came under fire by victims after it advanced a proposal that would have allowed victims only a limited ability to sue predators.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who had earlier said a retroactive window to file lawsuits would be unconstitutional, pushed a proposal that would have reformed the laws but prevented victims from suing institutions, including the Catholic Church. Victims and advocates condemned the proposal and in the end, Senate leaders fell short of rounding up enough votes in the chamber to ratify the measure.
By virtually all accounts, any such proposal is now kicked over into the new legislative session that begins in January.
In a statement from the Harrisburg diocese on Thursday, Bishop Ronald Gainer explained how the program is slated to be operational early next year. It will be led by attorney Kenneth Feinberg and associates, who administered the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund as well as a similar compensation fund for the Archdiocese of New York.
Settlements from victims funds typically come nowhere near the compensation offered to victims out of court settlements. Victims, however, are typically open to the narrower criteria required by victims funds – including considerably lower levels of proof.
Woolley excoriated church officials and lawmakers and said she would be willing to share the graphic details of her abuse and the memories that linger to challenge their lack of conscience.”
I highly doubt they have the courage to hear the truth and what will continue to be done to every child in my perpetrators reach, she said. Stop putting an arbitrary dollar amount on victimization in an attempt to make this all go away.