Pennsylvania Catholic Dioceses Consider Sex Abuse Victim Compensation Fund but Not Changes to Law
By Tim Darragh
August 31, 2018
he grand jury investigating child sex abuse in six Catholic dioceses around Pennsylvania concluded that abuse survivors who had long been prevented from seeking damages should be offered a legal window of opportunity to file suit.
None of Pennsylvania’s dioceses is supporting that recommendation, saying a retroactive statute of limitations is unconstitutional. Instead, the dioceses are looking at creating a compensation fund for survivors. And one, the Erie Diocese, has set in motion steps to create the fund.
Advocates for survivors, however, say a compensation fund is insufficient. They gained an ally Friday in Gov. Tom Wolf, who urged the Legislature to pass a bill adopting the grand jury’s four recommendations, including giving survivors two years to file lawsuits.
Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico this week ordered the diocese’s lawyers to work with state legislators in developing a fund, following a call to action Wednesday by Republican state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.
“In my statement to victims on Aug. 14, I committed myself and this diocese to assist in healing for victims and for the wider community,” Persico said Thursday. “It is time to take action. We must do what is within our power to provide justice to victims. Therefore, I have directed our lawyers to collaborate with the Pennsylvania Legislature to develop an acceptable and appropriate program to make restitution to victims.”
Other dioceses are taking a cautious approach.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the subject of two grand jury sex abuse investigations, has paid more than $10 million in recent years to help hundreds of victims, spokesman Ken Gavin said.
“We are receptive to any fair and reasonable program to help victims whose cases are barred,” he said.
Spokesmen for the Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses all said they were “open” to discussions about a victims fund. A spokesman for the remaining Pennsylvania diocese, Altoona-Johnstown, did not answer an email or call seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm in Harrisburg, also did not return a message. But in statements on its website, the conference argues against enacting a retroactive window on the statute of limitations. In other jurisdictions where a statute of limitations window has been opened, it noted, dioceses filed for bankruptcy protection.
Most of the roughly 1,000 victims found in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury investigation were unable to sue for compensation for pain and suffering, as the state’s statute of limitations barred them from suing. The same was true when grand juries investigated the Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, dismissed the compensation fund as a way for church leaders to skirt responsibility. It also would do nothing for survivors of child sex abuse outside the Catholic Church, he said.
“What about the rest of the victims that my legislation would cover, including public school students?” said Rozzi, who was raped by a priest as a boy and has sponsored legislation that would give older victims a two-year window to sue. “I’ve had so many victims call me saying, ‘My predator isn’t on the list.’ ”
In addition, survivors who are able to use the power of the courts can identify more abusers and secure larger payouts than what would be available from compensation funds, Rozzi said.
“Bishops no longer get to set the terms,” said Judy Jones, the Midwest director of SNAP, a sex abuse survivors organization. “We cannot rely on the church hierarchy to tell the truth or protect children.”
Like Rozzi, she called for opening a two-year retroactive window for civil cases.
Wolf agreed, saying many survivors had been coerced into not seeking legal action against an institution they felt obligated to respect.
“The reforms laid out in the grand jury report would deliver what victims deserve,” he said. “In my view, a limited victims fund outside the judicial system would not.”
Former state Sen. Scott Wagner, Wolf’s Republican opponent as he seeks re-election in November, said Friday he is against setting up a fund.
But Scarnati, the senate leader from Jefferson County, is opposed, saying the state Constitution bars the Legislature from writing laws with retroactive clauses. The Constitution can be amended, he said, but that is a lengthy process.
In his statement, Persico said efforts to apply a retroactive statute of limitations would result in “protracted legal wrangling.”
Other states have established compensation funds “in times of extraordinary circumstances,” Scarnati said.
“The victim support fund should be administered by a neutral third party to ensure fairness and objectivity,” he said.
Neither Scarnati nor the dioceses said how large the fund should be.
A settlement fund was created by Penn State University to compensate more than 30 people who were sexually assaulted by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Around $110 million had been paid to victims as of early this year.
GRAND JURY RECOMMENDATIONS
The statewide grand jury investigating the sexual abuse of children by priests in six Catholic dioceses, including Allentown, recommnded these changes:
* Eliminating age limits for victims of sexual abuse in childhood to file criminal complaints. The law now requires they be made by the age of 50.
* Opening a “civil window” to allow victims who have been barred by the statute of limitations to file civil suits against their perpetrators. The law now gives people 12 years to file a complaint once they reach age 18. No retroactive window is provided.
* Tightening the law that requires people who work with children to report abuse. Language mandating reporting if a person suspects a child is “actively being subjected to child abuse” is vague, the grand jury said.
* Eliminating nondisclosure agreements that bar victims from cooperating in criminal prosecutions.