Philadelphia Archdiocese opens claims process for sex abuse victims compensation fund
The Independent Reconciliation and Reparations program will be run by a team that oversees a similar fund in New York, where the church has paid millions to clergy sex abuse victims.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will not put a cap on payouts to victims of clergy sexual abuse, administrators of a new reparations program announced Tuesday.
The initiative, called the Independent Reconciliation and Reparations program, will be run by a team that oversees a similar fund for victims in New York and monitored by a committee of three people paid by the archdiocese.
"Do not underestimate the importance of this," Kenneth R. Feinberg, one of two fund administrators, said during a news conference to discuss details of the program. "A claimant who for years [or] decades may have been whistling in the wind about the legitimacy of a claim now finds a program where that claim is validated. That degree of validation is extremely important."
It was not immediately clear how many victims may file a claim or have one approved, the likely range of payouts, or the total amount of money the archdiocese is prepared to spend. Information packets about the fund have already been sent to more than 340 known survivors of clergy sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
The compensation fund is the latest effort by the church to grapple with an issue that has not only roiled the faithful but sparked new legislative and law enforcement scrutiny in the wake of August's grand jury report on clergy sex abuse across Pennsylvania.
Church officials in Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, Greensburg, and Scranton unveiled plans for similar funds last week. Some have viewed the bishops' moves as a way to shield the dioceses against lawsuits and an effort to deflate ongoing debate in Harrisburg over opening a temporary window for older abuse victims to sue.
Under the Philadelphia program, any person who was a child victim of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which includes Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties as well as the city, is eligible to submit a claim through Sept. 30, 2019. Information is available at www.PhiladelphiaArchdioceseIRRP.com.
Feinberg said the archdiocese has put no limit on individual claims or its aggregate payment. The New York Archdiocese has reported paying out $40 million to 189 survivors of clergy abuse from more than 200 claims received in the first phase of its program.
Feinberg and Camille Biros, who will administer the fund here, have overseen similar compensation programs for clergy sex-abuse victims in the New York, Brooklyn, and Rockville Centre Dioceses, as well as for victims of the Sept. 11 and Boston Marathon terror attacks, and mass shootings in Las Vegas; Orlando; Newtown, Conn.; and Aurora, Colo.; and at Virginia Tech University.
Philadelphia-area clergy sex-abuse victims will be paid through existing church funds, borrowing, and the sale of church properties. No decisions have been made on what properties might be put up for sale, the archdiocese said in a statement, but no funds will come from Catholic Charities or donations made to parishes or schools.
"Money can't buy back a wounded person's wholeness," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said. "But what compensation can do is acknowledge the evil done and meaningfully assist survivors as they work to find greater peace in their lives."
Biros and Feinberg will review the eligibility and credibility of a claim and determine the amount to be awarded. Their decision cannot be appealed. Those choosing to accept an awarded amount presented to them must sign a release forgoing the right to sue on that claim. Victims can also withdraw from the process at any time.
In setting a payout amount, the administrators said they will consider the extent of harm, the age of the victim and degree of the abuse, verifiable documentation of medical, counseling or prescription expenses, and the overall credibility of the claim.
"What Camille and I do when we sit down and evaluate these claims is look at the claimant, the circumstances of the claim, the alternatives available to that claimant, what other dioceses have done in similar situations, and we try to come up with a dollar value that the claimant will voluntarily accept," Feinberg said. "The claimant can reject it, but the goal here is to at least offer a very diverse group of people … compensation."
Victims who have already settled with the church or brought suits that have since been resolved are ineligible unless the claims were dismissed solely because of Pennsylvania's statute of limitations.
Feinberg said claimants can withdraw from the process at any time, including after they are shown their award offer — or if the legislature suspends the statute of limitations that bars lawsuits over older claims.
"There are no hidden agendas here," he said. "There are no secret backroom dealings."
The number of claims filed and awarded will be made public, but it will likely be up to the archdiocese whether to share how much money is paid out, Biros said.
The program also includes a victim support facilitator, Lynn Shiner, to help people submit claims and connect them, if interested, to counseling or other support services in the church.
Shiner is a consultant for several national victims services programs and the former director of the Office of Victims' Services with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. She became involved in victim advocacy after her young children were murdered by her husband on Christmas in 1994.
She said she's eager to guide victims through what could be a difficult process.
"We all have scars on our souls," Shiner said. "What we do with these scars is what matters most."
Claims, which are expected to be settled in about 90 days, will be kept confidential and victims can, if they wish, meet directly with Feinberg and Biros in addition to providing written testimony. No members of the archdiocese will be present at those meetings.
The three-member oversight committee, chaired by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, will periodically review the operations of the fund.
"My hope is that everyone who suffered" will take advantage of the program, Mitchell said. "The wrongs that you endured will not be erased but can be ameliorated."