Diocese Defends Settlement;
Albany Church Says Amount of Payment in Abuse Case Was Not Aimed at Avoiding Scrutiny
By Andrew Tilghman
June 28, 2002
A day after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany publicly acknowledged the settlement of a shocking case of sexual abuse by a priest, church leaders said Thursday that the confidential payment of just less than $1 million was not an attempt to avoid scrutiny of the diocese's financial council.
The $997,500 out-of-court settlement was paid in 1997 to a man who said he was given drugs and alcohol and sexually abused hundreds of times as a teenager in the 1970s by the Rev. Mark Haight.
If the settlement had been just $2,500 more, church officials would have been required to get approval of its financial council. The nine-member body of priests, nuns and laity oversees the church's money and reviews annual financial statements in accordance with canon law.
Church officials said Thursday that all settlement agreements, no matter what their dollar figure, are disclosed to the council in annual reports. A payment of less than $1 million, however, can be expedited because it does not need approval from the financial council -- which meets only about four times a year.
"The practice has always been to keep the finance council apprised of these matters," the church said in a statement released Thursday.
The victim's attorney, John Aretakis, said he felt a payment of $1 million or more could have jeopardized the settlement, one of the largest of its kind in New York state history.
"I was given the impression that Bishop (Howard) Hubbard could call all the shots on a settlement one dollar under a million," said Aretakis, whose client has asked to remain anonymous. "In hindsight, it can be seen as the diocese and the bishop trying to keep the powder keg from exploding."
Church officials had received a previous complaint of abuse concerning Haight in 1989. At that time, he underwent psychological treatment and was reassigned to Glens Falls Hospital, where administrators were not informed of his history of abuse.
Haight, a Schenectady native ordained in 1976, was quietly removed from his post as a chaplain in 1996 after Aretakis' client came forward with his allegations.
This case and 10 others that the diocese settled during the past 25 years were all covered by liability insurance, according to church officials Thursday. They said the cases totaled in excess of $2.3 million, significantly more than they had previously indicated.
Initially, Aretakis asked for $2.6 million, and negotiations lasted several months. The church suggested annual payments instead of a lump sum, but Aretakis rejected that offer, he and church officials said.
Attorney Michael Costello, who represents the diocese, told Aretakis that a payment of more than $1 million would likely take several months to approve, Aretakis said. On the advice of his client, Aretakis said he accepted the final amount.
In recent weeks, Albany church officials had refused to discuss details of the 1997 settlement involving Haight, citing the confidentiality clause. But they issued a statement to the Times Union on Wednesday after Aretakis gave copies of the settlement agreement and settlement checks to a reporter.
Aretakis said he did so because "this victim wants to assist others to find the strength to come forward, to report these priests and ensure that this does not happen again to our children."
For years, Aretakis' client, who is now 41, has struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts stemming from his sexual abuse. "He had constant thoughts of him wanting the priest to kill him," Aretakis said.
The abuse began when the victim was 12 years old, after meeting Haight during a brief stay at Albany Memorial Hospital in 1974, Aretakis said. Haight ingratiated himself with the victim's family and for about six years, or until the victim was 18, often had sex with the boy several times a week. Also, he frequently gave the teenager alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and pornography, Aretakis said.
"He said, 'I had sex with this man hundreds and hundreds of times and I don't think ever in a sober state of mind,' " Aretakis said.
Nationwide, only about 25 clergy abuse cases are known to have settled for more than $1 million, said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused By Priests, a Illinois-based victim's advocacy group.
"Even if it seems to some people to be a high award, I would stress that no amount of money can undo the pain that this young man suffered," Clohessy said.
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