Bishops support sex abuse compensation program

HARRISBURG — The Roman Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania said late Friday they are willing to set up a victims’ compensation fund as they face the prospect that state lawmakers will give victims of decades-old child sexual abuse another chance to sue the church.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference issued the statement for the dioceses saying they were discussing a possible fund. They warned that if a window opens for litigation of old cases, it could force the dioceses into bankruptcy and prevent them from helping victims or performing social services.

The statement was released by Tony DeGol, secretary for communications for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

No diocese that has sought bankruptcy protection has ever stopped operating. Victims’ lawyers say seeking bankruptcy is a strategic way to limit liability in lawsuits.

A nearly 900-page state grand jury report released Aug. 14 said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials, including the man who is now archbishop of Washington, D.C., of systematically covering up complaints.

The dioceses’ announcement comes ahead of a Monday rally at the Capitol to press lawmakers to approve a grand jury’s recommendations, including creating a two-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits after the statute of limitations on their cases runs out.

The statement reads:

“Since the release of the grand jury report on Aug. 14, we, the Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania, have reflected deeply on the ugly record of clergy sexual abuse in our Commonwealth, and on times when church leadership failed to protect our people over a period of decades.

“We fully acknowledge that the church sometimes failed the most vulnerable among us — children and young adults. We deeply regret the suffering of survivors and any decisions that failed to protect them.

“As the Pennsylvania General Assembly returns for the fall legislative session, assuring the protection of children and help for survivors of sexual abuse should rightly be one of its top priorities. As various alternatives and programs are proposed, we will support all reasonable and constitutional efforts focused on helping survivors and their families on a path toward healing.

“We recognize our responsibility to provide an opportunity for sexual abuse survivors whose cases are time-barred from pursuing civil claims to share their experiences, identify their abusers, and receive compensation to assist their healing and recovery.

“To that end, we commit ourselves to creating or participating in an independent, voluntary program that will include a panel of qualified experts to review individual cases and determine financial assistance. We understand that this compensation program will require substantial fiscal commitment and all dioceses will be seriously impacted. We stress that it is most important for all experts serving on this panel to be independent of the influence of the church or of any institution in which children may have been abused.

“We believe such a program will expedite the process for survivors to present their cases to experienced, compassionate experts who will determine an outcome for each case in a swift, efficient manner. In doing so, the panel will provide a resolution to survivors and allow them to avoid difficult and prolonged litigation.

“We believe an independent panel is the best option, considering a window or reviver of the statute of limitations will inevitably result in bankruptcy for dioceses. Bankruptcy would cripple the ability of a diocese to provide compensation and healing for survivors, while vastly reducing or eliminating social service programs that greatly benefit all Pennsylvanians by serving some of the most at-risk people in our communities.

“We hope that as the program develops, it will be open to any youth service organization, private or public, to opt into it to fulfill its obligations to survivors of abuse. We welcome legislative support for such a program. We cannot undo the harm that childhood sexual abuse has caused, but in humility and repentance, we hope the path forward offers a way toward healing for survivors and their families.”

Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the conference, said that the fund is just an idea at this point, details are still being discussed and no amount of money had been determined. She said the bishops were still talking about what kinds of compensation might be offered.

Both civil lawsuits and victims’ compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memories of their abuse as children, although there are crucial differences.

Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of child sexual abuse complaints and how they handled them. Plaintiffs also can extract court-approved agreements from dioceses to add procedures or training to better protect children going forward. Some of the money goes to lawyers’ fees, and the church’s defenders say that motivates civil lawyers.

A victim’s compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny but delivers a faster payout to victims.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro are expected to attend the rally Monday, the first day that state lawmakers are back in voting session since the grand jury produced a report that has shaken the church, spawned investigations in other states and drawn a strong response from Pope Francis.

The state House of Representatives appears poised to pass a two-year window provision. Similar action has happened

over the years in several other states, including California, Minnesota and Delaware, according to the Philadelphia-based research organization Child USA. But the Catholic Church and insurers have opposed similar measures in the past, and its fate in the Senate is uncertain.

The Senate in 2016 blocked similar legislation passed by the House.

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