Catholic Diocese of Erie’s abuse probe cost $4 million
By Ed Palattella
September 15, 2018
Funds paid for a law firm to conduct investigation that led to list of accused priests and laypeople. Firm also updated child-protection policy. No parish funds used, bishop says.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie’s unprecedented internal investigation of clergy sexual abuse has come at a large cost: $4 million.
Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico said that is how much the 13-county diocese has spent to have a law firm investigate the claims of abuse, going back to the 1940s, as well as revise the diocese’s child-protection policy and represent the diocese during the two-year statewide grand jury probe that ended with the release of the sweeping 884-page report on Aug. 14.
The $4 million is separate from the $750,000 the diocese said it has given to abuse victims over the past several decades.
The diocese said it has covered all those costs with investment earnings and budget surpluses. Money from parish offerings and the diocese’s affiliated agencies, such as Catholic Charities, has not been touched, the diocese said.
“I know it will surprise some people to see the $4 million figure,” Persico said in a statement to the Erie Times-News on Friday. “But it has been an essential investment. We’ve never had a complete picture of our history in terms of church-related sexual abuse in the Diocese of Erie before. Now we will have it in perpetuity.”
The investigation by the diocese’s law firm, K&L Gates, of Pittsburgh, produced the diocese’s list of credibly accused priest and laypeople, a first-of-its-kind accounting among dioceses nationwide. Persico released the list in April, and it now has more than 70 names and is more comprehensive than the list in the grand jury report, which identified only clergy.
The grand jury report named 41 Diocese of Erie priests among more than 300 “predator priests” who victimized more than 1,000 minors statewide over the past 70 years. The report was among the developments that led Pope Francis this week to schedule, in February, a summit at the Vatican on child abuse in the worldwide church.
The report covers the Erie diocese and five others: those in Allentown, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Persico was the only bishop among the six to testify before the grand jury.
‘Doing everything possible’
The $4 million also “covers all of the legal fees involved since we received the subpoena for our records from the grand jury in September 2016,” Persico said on Friday. “We worked with one law firm through December (2016), but by the end of that year, I decided to replace them with K&L Gates of Pittsburgh. I found their approach to be more in line with mine.
“The fees include the cost of digitizing all of our records so they are now searchable,” Persico said. “Lawyers at K&L Gates were instrumental in helping us with the most significant revision of our Policy for the Protection of Children since it was developed 32 years ago.
“We wanted to make sure our policy was on the leading edge, doing everything possible to protect children. They also are highly qualified investigators. I have complete confidence in their ability to get to the truth when allegations are brought forth.
“In addition,” Persico said, “the money covered the legal fees for all of those associated with the Diocese of Erie who were called to appear before the grand jury.”
Persico said the money did not cover the legal fees incurred when others in the diocese, including retired Bishop Donald W. Trautman, tried to get the grand jury report redacted. Persico, who has headed the 220,000-member Erie diocese since October 2012, was the first of the bishops in the six affected dioceses to object to the efforts to redact the report or block its release.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office conducted the grand jury probe, has praised Persico for his handling of the abuse crisis, and the grand jury in its report said Persico’s transparent approach was encouraging.
The transparency has continued with the Erie diocese’s disclosure of the $4 million, which is covered at length in the current issue of the diocese’s Faith magazine. The entire issue is dedicated to coverage of the grand jury report.
The diocese in Faith magazine said Persico called for the in-depth investigation of past abuse cases to get an accurate and comprehensive portrayal of what has happened in the diocese, including at its 97 parishes and 33 schools. The diocese said Trautman was the first bishop in the diocese to keep records on sexual abuse by clergy or laity.
“It may seem surprising, but in a diocese that is 165 years old, new bishops cannot possibly go through all documents pertaining to the administrative work of the past,” Faith magazine reported.
The diocese said the internal probe of abuse cases has provided a lasting document and shows Persico’s commitment to full disclosure about the abuse crisis.
“I see this as a legacy every bit as important as the bricks-and-mortar projects of those who came before us,” diocesan spokeswoman Anne Marie-Welsh, who is also the editor of Faith magazine, said on Friday. “Bishop Persico has said we need to face and understand our past. His commitment to this project has made that possible.”
More costs ahead
The diocese is all but certain to spend more money on the investigation, in which K&L Gates has been looking into information the diocese has received about abuse since the release of the grand jury report. And the diocese is sure to pay more money to victims, though how the release of that money will occur remains uncertain. The diocese said it now provides funds only for counseling and therapy for victims.
The state House this month is expected to consider legislation that would provide child sexual abuse victims a two-year window to sue, no matter what the statute of limitations or how long ago the abuse occurred. The change would allow victims to sue for damages in any amount.
The top-ranking Republican in the GOP-controlled Senate, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, contends that the two-year window would be unconstitutional because it is retroactive. He favors a church-endowed victims’ compensation fund.
Persico also supports the creation of a compensation fund rather than the two-year window. Citing the legal challenges he predicted the window would face, Persico said the fund would provide more certainty that victims would receive some compensation.
Persico reiterated that stance in Faith magazine, and he made clear that the diocese is facing more investigative costs.
“It is tough to see that figure, and I know we’re not done,” Persico told the magazine about the $4 million. “But people in the parishes have the right to know. I believe it is good stewardship.”