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Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses announce funds to compensate sex-abuse victims

Though details on the so-called "reparation funds" remained hazy – including just how much church officials have set aside in each diocese to compensate victims – Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput described the church's financial commitment in his city as "significant."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is launching a sexual abuse victims compensation fund that will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg and his firm. Shown is the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is launching a sexual abuse victims compensation fund that will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg and his firm. Shown is the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City.Read moreGENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

Amid a renewed furor over the Catholic Church's handling of clergy sex abuse, several of Pennsylvania's 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.

Others viewed the bishops' motives more cynically, describing the move as an effort to deflate ongoing debate in Harrisburg over opening a temporary window for older abuse victims to sue – a move that has inflicted a torrent of lawsuits on dioceses in other states and even driven some into bankruptcy.

"If I do something wrong, I don't make my own punishment up," said Martha McHale, a clergy sex-abuse victim from Reading, adding: "Neither should they."

Still, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput described the church's financial commitment in his city as "significant."

"Money can't buy back a wounded person's wholeness," Chaput said in a statement. "But what compensation can do is acknowledge the evil done and meaningfully assist survivors as they work to find greater peace in their lives."

Church officials in Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, Greensburg, and Scranton also unveiled similar funds Thursday. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Erie said Bishop Lawrence Persico planned to open a compensation program there, too, though the details were not ready for public disclosure.

(The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese did not announce any plans for such a fund and instead issued a news release touting money they had already spent on things like therapy for sex-abuse victims over the last two decades.)

"The survivors' compensation program we are working to establish will be designed to create the best opportunity for recovery and healing to survivors," Bishop David Zubik, of Pittsburgh, said. "They continue to suffer as a result of their abuse and this program will help to provide for their ongoing needs."

>>> READ MORE: Failure at the top: America's Catholic bishops vowed to remove abusive priests; they failed to police themselves

In launching the new funds, Pennsylvania's bishops appear to have modeled their efforts on similar funds in five New York dioceses that have paid out more than $200 million over the last two years to more than 1,000 victims – with an average payout of $200,000.

As in New York, many of the Pennsylvania dioceses tapped renowned mediator Kenneth R. Feinberg, who served as special master for the 9/11 victims' compensation fund and who oversaw Pennsylvania State University's efforts to settle with victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Feinberg and his business manager, Camille S. Biros, will review claims and independently decide how much money the victims should receive, they said Wednesday.

In Philadelphia, their work will be overseen by an independent committee whose members include former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell; Kelley Hodge, former Philadelphia district attorney; and Lawrence F. Stengel, former chief judge for the U.S. Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

"The dioceses cannot appeal or challenge our rulings on eligibility or amounts of compensation," Feinberg said.

The announcements came just five days before the nation's Catholic bishops are set to convene in Baltimore after a fraught year that once again has plunged the U.S. hierarchy into a crisis over their handling of sex-abuse cases in the church.

The last four months alone have seen the toppling of top church leaders like Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and his successor, Donald Wuerl, as well as a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania that accused bishops in six of the state's eight dioceses of participating in decades of cover-up and inaction.

That August report fueled new momentum behind a hotly debated measure that the church has been fighting for years: a bill that would create a two-year reprieve in the civil statute of limitations so that older victims can sue for decades-old abuse. Despite a House vote endorsing such a plan, state senators left the Capitol last month without a final vote on the legislation.

Still, advocates including state Attorney General Josh Shapiro have vowed to continue their push. Many viewed the announcement of church-backed compensation funds Thursday as a way to preemptively stanch debate before lawmakers reconvene early next year. Victims who accept payments from the funds will have to give up their right to sue if the state legislature temporarily lifts the statute of limitations.

"It's a brilliant political move by the bishops," said Benjamin D. Andreozzi, a lawyer who represents several Pennsylvania clergy sex-abuse victims and who dealt with similar funds on behalf of clients in New York. "This is exactly what happened in New York. The dioceses there probably resolved 90 percent of their outstanding civil claims for pennies on the dollar."

Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and sex-abuse victim advocate, said that while the funds have helped some of the victims who don't relish the prospect of drawn-out court battles with no certain outcome, they also do a disservice to the wider public since church records detailing cover-ups by the hierarchy that have regularly emerged in sex-abuse litigation over the last two decades would not have to be shared with victims in cases settled by the funds.

"They are good for a certain class of survivors," she said. "But many victims need their day in court. The best possible world is that the victims get to choose."

Feinberg, though, described the victim compensation funds as more cost-effective and quicker to generate results for victims than protracted litigation. For example, it took more than three years to reach a settlement in the 2015 Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis bankruptcy.

By contrast, the Archdiocese of New York announced its compensation fund in October 2016 and distributed $40 million to 189 victims over the next year in the program's first phase, which was for victims who had already reported their abuse to the church. A second phase was for victims who came forward after the program was started.

It's not clear if Philadelphia or the other participating dioceses will have two phases or how long the window to file claims will be open. "We are still working out the final details," Biros said.

In Philadelphia, Biros said that awards from its new "Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program" will depend on the age of the child, the nature of the abuse and how long it went on, whether it was a recidivist priest, and other factors.

And while a spokesperson would not estimate the number of claims the archdiocese expects to receive, the program will launch with an unspecified amount of cash on hand that will have to be supplemented by borrowing and the sale of archdiocesan properties.

It remained unclear Thursday whether the archdiocese's insurers would contribute to the cost of the fund's payouts.

"The compensation program requires substantial fiscal commitment over time," Chaput said in his statement Thursday. "It will impact the church and her ministries in a serious way, but this will not deter the archdiocese or the program from proceeding."

Staff writer Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.