Pa. dio­ce­ses out­line child sex abuse vic­tim funds

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - NEWS - By Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG » Seven Ro­man Catholic dio­ce­ses in Penn­syl­va­nia said Thurs­day that they have taken steps to set up vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion funds, nearly three months af­ter a chill­ing grand jury re­port doc­u­mented decades of child sex­ual abuse by priests in the state.

The Philadel­phia, Harrisburg, Scran­ton and Al­len­town dio­ce­ses is­sued pub­lic an­nounce­ments, and a lawyer for the Greens­burg Dio­cese said it is also in­volved. The Erie and Pitts­burgh dio­ce­ses said they were set­ting up funds but were not ready to dis­close de­tails. Al­toon­aJohn­stown said it set up a vic­tim fund in 1999.

The an­nounce­ments did not men­tion a to­tal dol­lar amount for the funds or their max­i­mum po­ten­tial in­di­vid­ual pay­outs.

Five of the dio­ce­ses have hired vet­eran com­pen­sa­tion fund co­or­di­na­tor Ken Fein­berg to de­sign and op­er­ate their pro­grams. The Philadel­phia fund will be­gin tak­ing ap­pli­ca­tions next week, set­ting a fil­ing dead­line for claims at the end of next Septem­ber, said Camille Biros, Fein­berg’s co-ad­min­is­tra­tor. Harrisburg, Erie, Greens­burg and Scran­ton are ex­pected to be­gin their pro­grams in Jan­uary, she said.

In state­ments, the dio­ce­ses de­scribed sources for the money, in­clud­ing bor­row­ing, prop­erty sales, in­vest­ments and in­sur­ers.

“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 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, she said.

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 last month. Op­po­nents, in­clud­ing Catholic bish­ops and the in­sur­ance in­dus­try, ex­pressed con­cerns about the cost and ar­gued that a retroac­tive change would vi­o­late the state constitution.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Demo­crat and lead­ing ad­vo­cate for the law­suit win­dow, said ne­go­ti­a­tions have con­tin­ued and he sees a pos­si­bil­ity of a deal by year’s end.

“And if not, we’re go­ing to be back at it next year,” Rozzi said.

The land­mark grand jury re­port re­leased in Au­gust es­ti­mated hun­dreds of priests in Penn­syl­va­nia mo­lested more than 1,000 chil­dren since the 1940s.

State At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro, whose of­fice over­saw the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said law­mak­ers should en­act the win­dow along with other changes to state law that the jury rec­om­mended — 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.

Shapiro said 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.”

The an­nounce­ments come as the chief fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor in Philadel­phia has be­gun in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Penn­syl­va­nia dio­cese of­fi­cials broke any fed­eral child ex­ploita­tion laws.

Ben An­dreozzi, a lawyer who rep­re­sents dozens of peo­ple in each of Penn­syl­va­nia’s eight dio­ce­ses who claim to have been abused by priests, 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.”

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. Fac­tors to de­ter­mine the size of the pay­outs in­cluded the sever­ity of the abuse, the age of the vic­tim and the long-term ef­fect on the vic­tim’s life.

“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.

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, said an in­de­pen­dent board will over­see an ad­min­is­tra­tor’s de­ci­sion about com­pen­sa­tion. It plans to an­nounce a timetable and other de­tails shortly. Erie said its fund pa­ram­e­ters were be­ing fi­nal­ized.

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. A lawyer for Greens­burg said it planned to re­lease de­tails.

Pitts­burgh said it will out­line its pro­gram by the end of the year, and Bishop David Zu­bik re­cently sched­uled “lis­ten­ing ses­sions” around the dio­cese to help de­ter­mine how the pro­gram will op­er­ate. Biros said the Fein­berg team has been in talks with the Pitts­burgh dio­cese about pos­si­bly op­er­at­ing its pro­gram.

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