LET US PAY
ARCHDIOCESE SETS UP FUND FOR VICTIMS OF SEX ABUSE, CHAPUT: ‘SIGNIFICANT’ AMOUNT
The Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, headquarters of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA >> The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is ready to open up its wallet to help victims of child sexual abuse.
Archdiocese officials Thursday announced its creation of an independent program to support victims of childhood sexual abuse – but some advocates say it falls short. The announcement came in conjunction with seven other Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania in taking 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.
After convening with other bishops throughout the state following the release of the latest damning state grand jury report into sexual abuse of children this summer, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput created an Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program to provide financial support for victims of clergy sexual abuse, especially those outside the statute of limitations of civil litigation.
In August, the state grand jury report revealed more than 300 Catholic priests had abused at least
1,000 children in six dioceses dating back decades, and evidence that church officials had worked to cover it up. The findings echoed similar findings of grand jury investigations into abusive priests in Philadelphia and the Johnstown-Altoona dioceses.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was not been included in the latest grand jury report released in August since it had been covered by previous grand jury investigations in 2005 and
2011 that identified a similar pattern of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church hierarchy with policies meant to protect the church, not the child victims.
On Wednesday, Chaput’s office announced the establishment of the new program, stating, “with today’s announcement, the Archdiocesan commitment to providing as many modes of support and healing for survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones reaches a new level.”
The archdiocese said the Office for Child and Youth Protection will continue its victim assistance, which has provided hundreds of individuals with more than $18 million of resources and care based on treatment plans developed by independent therapists for more than 15 years.
The announcements did not mention a total dollar amount for the funds or their maximum potential individual payouts. Neither Chaput nor archdiocesan officials addressed how much money was in the fund. Chaput called the amount “significant” in a statement.
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.
The Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program will be monitored by the Independent Oversight Committee, comprised of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, former interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge and retired U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Lawrence F. Stengel.
The committee is tasked both with overseeing the new program and also regularly reviewing and evaluating existing archdiocesan programs related to child protection and abuse survivor assistance.
Attorneys Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros will administer the claims submitted to the program. The two served in a similar capacity for a claims programs set up for survivors of sexual abuse for dioceses in New York.
In addition, Feinberg had served as Special Master for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and administered the Aurora Colorado Victim Relief Fund, the BP Oil-Gulf Coast Claims Facility and the GM Ignition Compensation Claims Resolution Facility, inter alios.
Lynn Shiner, former director of the Office for Victims’ Services at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, is responsible for supporting the claimants.
Archdiocesan officials said the program will be funded by existing archdiocesan assets and money from the Catholic Charities Appeal, Seminary Appeal, donor-designated funds or donations specifically made to parishes, ministries or schools will not be used to fund this.
Some, including state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said other measures should be taken.
“It’s now clear that the dioceses acknowledge the grand jury accurately unearthed horrific and extensive abuse and coverup and, as a result, victims deserve compensation no matter when their abuse happened,” Shapiro said. “However, 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.”
Among those recommendations was killing the statute of limitations for criminal charges in child sex abuse cases; expanding
the window for victims to bring civil suits; and opening a two-year window for past victims to get their day in court. A bill to do all those things passed the House this fall but died in the Senate.
Karen Zehr, a support group leader for Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the effort is being done for appearance.
“In my opinion, it’s to make themselves look good to the public,” she said. “In reality, not a lot has changed.”
Zehr added, “Does it make a child safer in the Catholic Church today? But my inclination is no. They talk about it like it’s an issue of the past ... We know it’s still happening today every day.”
She said there was no indication that identified priests would be named as a part of this process.
“Is the church being truly open and transparent?” Zehr asked. “No ... If the Catholic Church really cared, why do they spend millions and millions of dollars against (statute of limitation) reform? Stop fighting the reform ... They’re spending millions and millions of dollars trying to now allow things to come out.”
In addition, she questioned those chosen to be involved in the program.
“Everything looks like it’s very independent, but I have no idea what their backgrounds are,” she said. “Are they Catholic?”
Arthur Baselice, whose son Arthur was abused for years as a student at Archbishop Ryan High School, had words of his own.
“Their reputation is so soiled as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Why should the people who created the problem be able to control the outcome of the problem they created?”
He shared similar concerns as Zehr.
“The church isn’t going to participate in any compensation program that isn’t going to benefit them,” Baselice said. “It’s more cost effective to do it this way than to go through trial ... To me, this is just a way to get people off the books. The problem is the records are going to remain confidential. You’re not going to be able to confront your abuser in a court of law.”
Demonstrating outside the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul in Philadelphia the first Friday of every month, he voiced a question.
“If you are a follower of the Catholic religion, when you make the trip to the other side and you’re confronted by your maker and that entity asks you, ‘Why did you support an organization that enabled and protected child abusers in my name?’, how do you defend that position?” Baselice asked. “What do shepherds do with their sheep? First, they fleece them. Then, they slaughter them.”
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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
The Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, headquarters of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Rev. Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia.