Diocese of Buffalo Hardly Touched by Clergy Sexual Abuse Settlements

By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News
July 22, 2007

Catholic dioceses across the country have paid in excess of $2 billion in settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse, but little of that amount has come from the Diocese of Buffalo.

Diocesan officials have reported spending $1.02 million on settlements, legal fees and therapy for victims and offenders between 1950 and 2005, a period when 53 clergy were accused in 105 incidents of sexual abuse.

They did not provide numbers for 2006 and the first half of 2007.

So far, the Buffalo diocese's financial losses due to the clergy abuse scandal pale in comparison to places such as Los Angeles, where the archdiocese last week reached a settlement with more than 500 abuse victims for $660 million; the Archdiocese of Boston, which is paying $129.6 million in settlements; and the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., which declared bankruptcy after settling for $53 million.

Because Catholic dioceses operate independent of each other, those huge payouts have no direct financial impact in Western New York.

Still, the settlements elsewhere have reverberated among Catholics here, some of whom fear that Bishop Edward U. Kmiec's effort to merge parishes is being driven by a need to sell off property and raise money for legal defenses and payouts.

Diocesan officials insist that the closing of church buildings has nothing to do with lawsuits or settlements related to the clergy abuse scandal.

"Not at all," spokesman Kevin A. Keenan said. "We've been pretty clear why we're doing this."

The diocese doesn't benefit from the sale of parish properties, he added.

"When any parcel of parish property is sold, the proceeds of the same go directly to the merged parish community," he said.

Financial data about the cost of the nationwide clergy abuse scandal varies dramatically by diocese.

Dioceses in New York State, for example, have largely avoided huge financial payouts for victims of sexual abuse.

Victims-support groups say that's because the state's statute of limitations on bringing civil lawsuits are among the toughest in the nation — preventing victims from having their cases heard in court.

A flood of lawsuits was filed in California after the State Legislature allowed plaintiffs an opportunity to sue, even if the alleged abuse occurred well beyond the original statute of limitations that would have prevented such suits in the past.

In Los Angeles, victims settled with the archdiocese for $660 million; the Diocese of San Diego has set aside $95 million for a settlement with victims, as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

In New York, current law allows for civil claims to be brought up to eight years after a victim's 18th birthday.

Victims and mental-health professionals have long argued that the abuse is so traumatic that many survivors experience delayed "discovery" of it, in some cases decades later.

Nonetheless, the state's highest court in 2006 reaffirmed the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases.

Legislation similar to what was drafted in California is now being considered in New York.

The Assembly in June passed a measure that would create a one-year window for victims to file lawsuits, even if the alleged abuse occurred years ago. The measure is stalled in the State Senate.

"Our bishops in New York State have a very powerful and strong lobbying group in Albany. They've been very successful in keeping this issue off the floor in the Senate and Assembly," said Mark Lyman, who heads the Albany chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "That's why you haven't seen major settlements, you haven't seen lawsuits."

The New York Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly opposes the "window" legislation that would suspend the statute of limitations, said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the lobby group.

Witnesses die and lose their memories of events, he said.

"When a certain amount of time passes, it becomes impossible to defend yourself," said Poust. "This is simply trial lawyers trying to enrich themselves by taking advantage of a tragic thing that happened."

Some of the cases in California were as much as 70 years old, he added.

And while "many lawyers perceive the church as having deep pockets," suspending the statute of limitations could cripple the good works of dioceses across the state, Poust said.

"It could have disastrous implications for the church's charitable ministries and its educational ministries," he said.

Victims-support groups argue, however, that the church has yet to give a full accounting of the depth and breadth of the scandal, particularly in New York State, home to an estimated 7.8 million Catholics, or 41 percent of the total state population.

"The control of information that bishops have in New York State is near total because of the restrictive statute of limitations," said Anne Barrett Doyle, clerk of BishopAccountability. org, a nonprofit that runs a Web site chronicling clergy abuse cases across the country. "The victims have no way to tell their story," she said.

Lyman said New York will become a haven for sexual predator clergy unless legislators change the law and allow victims the right to sue dioceses.

"The only way we can force the Catholic Church to clean up their ranks is to sue them in court," he said.



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