Attorneys: Abuse victims getting low offers from Diocese of Pittsburgh’s fund

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 29, 2020

By Peter Smith

Many people filing claims of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh are being offered compensation amounting to only a “fraction” of what victims have received in other dioceses, according to attorneys representing many of them before an out-of-court compensation fund.

Attorney Alan Perer, who said he represents about 75 clients who applied to the fund, is accusing Bishop David Zubik and the diocese of breaking a promise to compensate victims fairly. He said initial payments from the program gave fair compensation to victims but that many of the current offers are significantly lower.

At issue is the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Fund established last year by the diocese in the wake of the 2018 statewide grand jury report into the decades-long histories of sexual abuse in Pittsburgh’s and five other dioceses. The fund is administered by an independent law firm, which makes the individual offers, while the total amount of money is provided by the diocese.

Mr. Perer said the first round of claimants — those who had already reported abuse to the diocese before the fund was established — received payments in the low six figures, which is similar to those from other dioceses.

Some still are receiving similar offers. But, he said, the majority of clients are now receiving offers of $40,000 or less, even those who suffered “horrendous” abuse, he said. Some are offered $7,500, he said.

“I am witnessing the new suffering of victims caused by the diocese’s broken promises,” Mr. Perer said in a written statement to the Post-Gazette. “Specifically, these are survivors of sexual abuse who trusted the diocese to offer fair and reasonable compensation through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. As the fund currently exists, however, Bishop Zubik has chosen to break another promise to survivors by limiting the fund’s ability to provide reasonable compensation to survivors.”

The diocese said in a statement:

“From the time that Bishop Zubik announced the creation of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Fund, it has been and remains our goal to assist as many victim/survivors as possible with the funds that we have been able to garner. The fund is and has been administered independently from the Diocese of Pittsburgh and claims to the fund are determined by the fund administrators, the Feinberg Law Group. Applying to the fund has been a voluntary option from the beginning. Accepting the determinations offered is likewise voluntary; any claimant who has questions about how their determination was reached would need to have that discussion with the fund administrator, who is making the determinations independently of the diocese.”

The diocese said it would release final figures on the fund distribution once it is completed.

Some 367 people filed claims with the diocese last year after it launched the IRCP.

The diocese hired the Washington-based law firm of Kenneth Feinberg, which has extensive experience administering large settlement funds, to review and decide on the distributions independently.

Camille Biros of the Feinberg firm said in a statement: “We continue to review and evaluate the few remaining claims for the Pittsburgh Program as independent administrators in the same manner as when the Program was first implemented. It is correct that there is limited funding but that in no way affects our independence.“

Mr. Perer said while some clients are accepting the offers, others are refusing them and preparing instead to sue.

While lawsuits over sexual abuse from decades ago would typically be barred by the statute of limitations, he and other lawyers already have several pending lawsuits against the diocese, using the legal theory that the diocese engaged in an ongoing fraud and conspiracy until recently, and that the statute of limitations would not apply. A similar lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, testing that legal theory, is now before the state Supreme Court.

With the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s compensation fund, the first set of claims evaluated were for people who had notified the diocese of their abuse in the years before the funds was established. Many of those payments to claimants were above $100,000 or even $200,000 per person, Mr. Perer said.

While not at the level that some juries have awarded abuse victims, such payments amount to “recognition of the harm, something that makes people feel their suffering is acknowledged,” Mr. Perer said.

More recently, he said some payments have been as high as $125,000.

But for many, he said the offers are “insulting.”

“You offer somebody $7,500 who was abused by a priest and lived with it for 40 to 50 years, it’s like double abuse,” he said.

Attorney Benjamin Andreozzi of Harrisburg, who also represents some clients who applied to the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s fund, also said many of the offers are “a fraction of what they paid in these other (dioceses’) programs.” He also plans lawsuits on behalf of some clients.

Both attorneys speculated the diocese is low on money. An Orphans’ Court judge last year blocked the diocese’s effort to put an $8 million-plus trust fund, earmarked for needy children, toward the compensation payments.

Some clients are feeling they have no choice but to take the compensation offered due to the recession, Mr. Perer and Mr. Andreozzi said.

“They’re laid off from jobs,” Mr. Andreozzi said. “They have needs.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has so far paid out a total of $211,000 per claim in its program as of April, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Diocese of Greensburg paid an average of about $76,000 per person, according to its figures.

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