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In Pittsburgh diocese, millions in payments for clergy abuse, and a disputed fraud accusation

The grand jury report lists $5.8 million in payments covering lawsuits, counseling for victims, Catholic school tuition for victims' children and, in at least two cases, "sustenance" payments for priests who had been convicted of indecent assault or corrupting minors.

The scene in Harrisburg Tuesday as family members of victims heard Pa. attorney general speak of more than 70 years of abuse by clergy.
The scene in Harrisburg Tuesday as family members of victims heard Pa. attorney general speak of more than 70 years of abuse by clergy.Read moreMichael Bryant / Staff Photographer

HARRISBURG — Over the course of 70 years, allegations of rape and sexual abuse levied against clergy members who worked in the Pittsburgh Diocese led to several million dollars in settlements and other bills, according to a review of the grand jury report released last month.

The report lists $5.8 million in payments covering lawsuits, counseling for victims, Catholic school tuition for victims' children, and, in at least two cases, "sustenance" payments for priests who had been convicted of indecent assault or corrupting minors.

The document does not always clarify whether the payments were covered by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, insurance, or other entities.

But that $5.8 million is almost certainly an undercount. The report lists payments stemming from the actions of 29 clergy members in the diocese; for 10 of them, it did not specify the amount paid out.

While that tally is less than the figures publicly known in other dioceses across the country, it has renewed questions about who should pay when priests sexually abuse children and where that money should come from.

"The grand jury's report … raises more questions for us, especially given the tithing and given who the players were," said Michael Hammond, a lawyer representing parishioners from two shuttered churches that have accused the diocese of fraud.

The money

Just under half of the known payments stem from one lawsuit, involving a former priest named Richard Deakin. According to the grand jury report, Deakin worked in the Baltimore area before coming to the Pittsburgh Diocese. In Maryland, he had developed a relationship with a teenage girl and "assumed a prominent role in her life" as she recovered from surgery to remove a tumor from her chest.

In the winter of 1985-86, he began sexually abusing her; the abuse lasted for about a year and a half and continued after he transferred to a church in Rochester, Beaver County. In 1989, the girl began having nightmares about the abuse, entered counseling, and told her mother and psychiatrist about the abuse.

Deakin was arrested in 1990 and pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse of a child, according to the report.

The girl and her mother filed a lawsuit that settled in 1993 for just over $2.7 million. The grand jury report does not specify who paid that money. The Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Capuchin religious order, and six church officials were named in the suit, according to a Baltimore Sun story from 1993.

In two cases, the diocese covered "sustenance" payments for priests after they were convicted in separate cases of either corrupting children or indecent assault.

One former priest, Richard J. Dorsch, now 73, was convicted of indecent assault and corrupting minors. He received $159,700 in sustenance payments through 2009, according to the grand jury report.

In another case, the report suggested, the diocese paid more than $260,000 in sustenance payments for former priest Richard F. Zula, who was convicted of corrupting children.

"The report takes issue with the fact that the Diocese of Pittsburgh paid for professional medical help for Zula and continued to provide him with sustenance," the diocese wrote in its response to allegations outlined by the grand jury report. "Canon law required the Diocese of Pittsburgh to support Zula."

The Zula case also involved a confidential settlement with two brothers for a total of $900,000. And the grand jury said the diocese obtained a doctor to evaluate Zula and present at his sentencing in hope of reducing it — a notion the diocese strongly disputed in its written response to the report.

"While diocesan resources were being used in such a fashion, unknowing parishioners were still actively tithing from their income without knowledge that church funds were being used to mitigate a convicted sex offender's sentence," the grand jurors concluded.

It is unclear how much money for the payments described in the report came from tithing. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has not answered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's questions about the payments.

In a few cases, the grand jury report itself provides details about how the expenses were covered. For example, the report says the Catholic Charities Fund paid $10,065 to educate one victim's children.

Other information can be gleaned from past news stories. In 2007, the Diocese of Pittsburgh agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle a case involving 32 victims. The diocese told priests that insurance provided the money, according to a Post-Gazette account.

The amount of publicly known payments in the Pittsburgh Diocese is lower than what's known to have been paid elsewhere. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said in a recent statement that it "has paid more than $10 million in recent years to help hundreds of victims."

Robert Hartwig, former CEO of the New York-based Insurance Information Institute and a professor at the University of South Carolina, said even when insurance is in place, it might not cover all of a diocese's costs.

"Historically," he said, "I have seen dioceses retain some of the costs using dioceses' funds, as well as assets from the sale of land, property and buildings."

A fraud allegation

Real estate developments are at the heart of a case currently winding through the state's court system.

Parishioners from St. Agnes in Richeyville and St. Anthony in Monongahela sued the Diocese of Pittsburgh over mergers involving their parishes.

They alleged, among other things, that they donated money through a diocesan fund-raising campaign promoted to raise funds to support "vibrant parishes," Catholic education and evangelization. At St. Agnes, parishioners helped raise more than $100,000.

"It is clear, however, that the diocese only desired to improve the market value of St. Agnes property in order to sell it for a higher profit,"  their attorney wrote in one filing.

He made similar claims on behalf of parishioners from St. Anthony.

The diocese countered that parishioners had ample reason — including from past statements —  to expect the churches could be merged. Mergers are necessary because of declining attendance, strapped finances, and a shortage of priests, the diocese has said.

The parishioners "claim, contrary to canon law, that their donations, tithes and offerings were converted by Bishop [David] Zubik to his personal use. Bishop Zubik contends that the monetary donations, in keeping with canon law, were transferred to the new parish," the diocese's attorney wrote in one court filing.

The diocese has argued in some instances that the former churches' locations or other features of their buildings made them less preferable for hosting a merged parish.

"The bishop must consider and act in the best interest of the universal church generally and the entire diocese specifically — not just in what a few individual parishioners believe is their best interest," the diocese's attorney wrote.

The case was initially dismissed by Washington County Court Judge Katherine Emery, who found that parishioners lacked standing and that their claims would require a judge to "delve into the canonical law" in a way that could violate the First Amendment, which grants freedom of religion.

The parishioners appealed the ruling, and that appeal is pending in Commonwealth Court. If the parishioners are successful, the payments mentioned in the grand jury report could factor into their arguments going forward.

"That's certainly a theory that we intend to dive into as to where these funds have gone, what the plans are for liquidating the church assets, why you're selling off more attractive properties and what the sudden need for that cash is," Hammond said.

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter contributed to this article.