Vic­tim funds close; le­gal fight re­opens

Har­ris­burg re­vis­its bill to al­low ‘win­dow’ for law­suits against church

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Marc Levy

HAR­RIS­BURG — When post of­fices close Mon­day, the last vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion funds at Penn­syl­va­nia’s Ro­man Catholic dio­ce­ses will also close, hours be­fore law­mak­ers plunge into a years-old fight over whether to let long-ago vic­tims of child sex­ual abuse sue per­pe­tra­tors and in­sti­tu­tions that may have cov­ered it up.

It comes more than a year af­ter a land­mark grand jury re­port ac­cused se­nior Catholic Church of­fi­cials of hush­ing up the abuse for decades.

In the re­port’s wake, the Philadel­phia Arch­dio­cese and six Penn­syl­va­nia dio­ce­ses opened vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion funds, while state law­mak­ers fought to a stand­still over giv­ing now-adult vic­tims of child­hood sex­ual abuse a le­gal “win­dow” to sue.

Many vic­tims lost that right un­der Penn­syl­va­nia law by the time they turned 20, while vic­tim ad­vo­cates say the dio­ce­ses have deftly used the de­lay to limit their civil li­a­bil­ity, aided in re­cent years by the Se­nate block­ing House bills that sought to re­store it.

On Mon­day, vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion funds in Philadel­phia, Al­len­town, Scran­ton and Pitts­burgh will close to ap­pli­ca­tions. The Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day, with tes­ti­mony from vic­tims

of child­hood sex­ual abuse, con­sti­tu­tional schol­ars and oth­ers.

The tim­ing is co­in­ci­den­tal, Se­nate of­fi­cials say.

Based on par­tial in­for­ma­tion avail­able from the dio­ce­ses, com­pen­sa­tion fund ad­min­is­tra­tors have of­fered or paid more than $35 mil­lion to roughly 240 peo­ple.

The of­fers re­quire a vic­tim to give up the right to sue later and av­er­age about $125,000, said Ben An­dreozzi, a Har­ris­burg lawyer who rep­re­sents dozens of vic­tims.

The vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who re­ceived of­fers took them, but that doesn’t make the com­pen­sa­tion funds a suc­cess, An­dreozzi said.

“For th­ese sur­vivors, this pro­gram was es­sen­tially jammed down their throat be­cause they had no other op­tion and they acted in des­per­a­tion,” An­dreozzi said.

Faced with the threat of a law­suit, a dio­cese would have paid roughly twice as much and, in bank­ruptcy court, about three times as much, he said.

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore Joe Scar­nati, R-Jef­fer­son, who led the cham­ber’s op­po­si­tion to chang­ing the law, said dio­ce­ses have pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant com­pen­sa­tion to vic­tims with­out mak­ing them re­live their abuse in court or pay at­tor­neys’ 30% fees.

“In my view, it’s been suc­cess­ful,” Scar­nati said.

Scar­nati ar­gues that retroac­tively giv­ing adult vic­tims a win­dow to sue is un­con­sti­tu­tional, short of chang­ing the state con­sti­tu­tion. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro, whose of­fice pro­duced the grand jury re­port, main­tains a win­dow is con­sti­tu­tional and the question, ul­ti­mately, would be up to Penn­syl­va­nia’s Supreme Court.

The dio­ce­ses say the com­pen­sa­tion funds are one of many ways they are try­ing to help vic­tims who come for­ward, and that they have long since changed, now strictly re­fer­ring new com­plaints to law en­force­ment.

John De­laney, who said he was raped as a 12-year-old boy by a priest in the Philadel­phia Arch­dio­cese, said fund ad­min­is­tra­tors of­fered him $500,000 and told him that it was the high­est amount they would of­fer.

He said he turned it down. De­laney, 48, doesn’t be­grudge any­one who took an of­fer: Many vic­tims of child­hood sex­ual abuse are in a life­long bat­tle with ad­dic­tion or other trou­bles, and can’t say no, he said.

For De­laney, who has been sober for three years and is coun­sel­ing vic­tims of sex­ual abuse and peo­ple strug­gling with ad­dic­tion in San An­to­nio, it was never about the money. It was about jus­tice and get­ting into court where a judge can force church of­fi­cials to tes­tify un­der oath, he said.

“This com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram does not hold any­body ac­count­able,” De­laney said. “It doesn’t give us an ad­mis­sion of guilt on the church’s part.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press does not iden­tify vic­tims of sex­ual abuse by name un­less they give per­mis­sion as De­laney did.

The Leg­is­la­ture has changed in sig­nif­i­cant ways since the Se­nate last blocked the House leg­is­la­tion last year.

A crit­i­cal mass of sen­a­tors might back leg­is­la­tion to re­store the right to sue, but the House took a dif­fer­ent tac­tic this year un­der a new ma­jor­ity leader, Rep. Bryan Cut­ler, R-Lan­caster, who op­poses a win­dow.

In April, the House passed a mea­sure to amend the state con­sti­tu­tion to al­low vic­tims of child­hood sex­ual abuse to sue, even if they’d turned Penn­syl­va­nia’s le­gal age limit, which is now 30.

Scar­nati said he sup­ports it. But amend­ing the con­sti­tu­tion couldn’t hap­pen be­fore 2021 and re­quires pas­sage by vot­ers in a statewide ref­er­en­dum.

In the mean­time, adults who were sex­u­ally abused as chil­dren out­side of the Catholic Church still have no ac­cess to a com­pen­sa­tion fund or to a court to con­front a per­pe­tra­tor, said Jen­nifer Storm, who heads the state’s Of­fice of Vic­tim Ad­vo­cate.

“So in the in­ter­est of fair­ness, we’re ask­ing the Se­nate to open that win­dow to any and all sur­vivors who come for­ward,” Storm said.

CAITIE MCMEKIN/NEWS SEN­TINEL/AP

John De­laney shows off his tat­toos af­ter speak­ing about be­ing abused as a child by the priest at his child­hood church in Philadel­phia. At mid­night Tues­day, vic­tim com­pen­sa­tion funds in Philadel­phia, Al­len­town, Scran­ton and Pitts­burgh will close to ap­pli­ca­tions. De­laney said fund ad­min­is­tra­tors of­fered him $500,000. He turned it down, he said.

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