Bishop: Diocese Acted 'Honestly' in Cash Settlements of Abuse Cases
By Maureen Graham
January 12, 1994
The Camden Diocese "acted honestly, forthrightly and with a sense of integrity" when it made confidential payments to settle claims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the diocese, Camden Bishop James T. McHugh said yesterday.
Commenting on an article in yesterday's Inquirer, Bishop McHugh said the settlements, and the confidentiality agreements that accompanied them, were motivated "by moral reasons, not legal threats. . . . We have not shirked our responsibility, nor do we intend to do so."
The Inquirer reported yesterday that the Camden Diocese had paid at least $3.2 million to 19 men and women since 1990 after hearing detailed accusations of sexual abuse against nine priests.
The newspaper said that a settlement totaling $1.8 million was paid last fall to 15 complainants, each of whom had signed a statement agreeing never to talk publicly about his or her case. The agreement said that anyone who broke the silence would have to give back the money.
In a two-page statement, Bishop McHugh described The Inquirer account as "in many ways incomplete, inaccurate and misleading."
The bishop's statement did not specify any inaccuracies, nor did it say in what ways the story was incomplete or misleading. It said that detailing the bishop's objections "would only generate a continuing controversy."
The bishop and his aides had declined to be interviewed before the article was published.
Bishop McHugh's statement appeared to confirm the broad elements of the newspaper account.
"The diocese did enter into a settlement with persons alleging sexual abuse by priests," the statement said. "The settlement involved financial awards which the diocese deemed just and fair to help the accusers obtain continued counseling or to reshape their lives."
The bishop did not confirm the newspaper's description of the amounts paid or the numbers of complainants and priests involved.
Concerning the secrecy clauses attached to those settlements, Bishop McHugh said:
"The agreements were effected in confidentiality. This was not to punish the accusers. Any one of them could have rejected the confidentiality agreement which was sent to their lawyer. They all understood and agreed."
The agreements were fashioned, he said, to protect the victims "so as to
allow them to live their lives without constant reference to what was a bad experience and one that they wished to put behind them."
"The diocese does not buy silence," the statement said.
In the story published Tuesday, Stephen Palo was quoted as having decided to break the secrecy stipulation after his family received checks for $50,000. He described the secrecy agreement as "paying us to be quiet." He and his mother, Lucy Palo, described what they said had been a 15-year pattern of abuse by the Rev. Joseph Shannon, who led the altar-boy group at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Camden.
Palo said he had wakened one morning when he was 12 to find the priest performing oral sex on him.
In sworn depositions taken in connection with the lawsuit, Father Shannon acknowledged having sex with Palo, but said the relationship had been initiated by Palo when he was 18 years old.
Palo, of Gloucester Township, and another complainant, John Moken of Pennsauken, disagreed yesterday with Bishop McHugh's statement. Both men said they had signed the secrecy agreement reluctantly.
"If they were doing something good for me, why didn't they let me talk about it?" asked Palo.
Moken said yesterday he had received $25,000 from the diocese to settle a claim that he had been abused by a priest for seven years, starting when he was 10. He acknowledged he had agreed to the confidentiality clause, and said he had decided to break his silence.
Bishop McHugh said that when faced with allegations of sexual abuse by some priests, the diocese had set up a fund "to care for the victims of sexual abuse." The fund was labeled the Bishop's Resource Fund, he said.
The Inquirer reported that checks drawn on the Resource Fund and ranging
from $10,000 to $513,000 had been paid to complainants and that two other checks totaling $400,000 had been drawn on the church's revolving fund at First Fidelity Bank.
The bishop's statement stressed that money for church programs was not used to settle the cases.
"Some of the cases were covered by insurance policies," it said. "For those not covered, a certain amount of money was set aside from a diocesan self-insurance program so as not to threaten or compromise the financial position of the diocese itself or the funds that are held for parishes or the
funds that are earmarked for specific purposes such as pensions, cemeteries, Catholic schools or apostolic activities."
Without referring to specific cases, Bishop McHugh said those who claimed they had been assaulted were not the only victims.
"The person who makes the claim and their families are victims, the diocese is a victim, all priests who serve faithfully and with great sacrifice are victims," the statement said, "and the Catholic people who are often confused and frustrated by incomplete information are victims."
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