Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
June 2, 2022
By Harold Brubaker
The average payment to victims is also much less than in recent diocesan bankruptcy settlements.
Under a reparations program for victims of sexual abuse launched in 2018, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia has paid $78.5 million on 438 claims — far less than the $126 million estimated two years ago, according to a final report released Thursday.
The average payment for Philadelphia victims — $179,224 — is also much less than the average in recent bankruptcy settlements in states where the statute of limitations — the length of time to bring suits — was lifted.
The much smaller Diocese of Camden in April agreed to pay $87.5 million to about 300 individuals, an average of $291,667. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe last month agreed to pay $121.5 million, or an average of $324,000, to 375 individuals.
The Philadelphia archdiocese has been spared a greater financial burden largely because of Pennsylvania’s shorter statute of limitations for such crimes, which has left many victims without legal authority to sue. So far, the church and other critics have successfully lobbied the legislature to block any major liberalization of the Pennsylvania restrictions, which requires victims to bring claims by the age of 30.
Some advocates were critical of the program, formally known as the Independent Reconciliation and Reparation Program.
“While this program was running, the Catholic Conference was lobbying to ensure no victim ever gets to court. The fact dramatically alters every line of this report,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and CEO of Child USA, a nonprofit research and advocacy group on child abuse and neglect.
Why was the aim estimate off?
Lawrence F. Stengel, a retired chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who chaired the reparations program’s Independent Oversight Committee, said he was not familiar with the archdiocese’s $126.5 million estimate, which was in the church’s fiscal 2019 audited financial statement and based on claims paid through June 30, 2019.
“We paid claims as they came in, and there was no floor and there was no ceiling,” Stengel said, adding that there was a great deal of uncertainty to estimates.
An attorney who helped victims through the process said there were two possible reasons for paying less money in total. “They either offered less people settlements or they offered the people who were being offered settlements less money,” said Jordan Merson, who has offices in Philadelphia and New York.
The amount offered to victims was based on an algorithm, said Michael McDonnell, spokesperson for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who went through the claims process in Philadelphia.
“That algorithm is based on the type of abuse that the victim suffered, whether it was penetration, molestation, whether there was oral involved, and the amount of times those occurrences happened,” McDonnell said.
He criticized the algorithm because it failed to account for the full cost of abuse to victims. “It’s not based on mental health treatment,” he said. “It’s not based on whether they have had addiction issues. It’s based on the act itself and how many times.”
Painful history for victims
The compensation fund in Philadelphia was part of an archdiocesan effort to deal with a long-running clergy sex abuse scandal that in the summer of 2018 reached a new level of outrage in Pennsylvania after a grand jury report detailed abuse and cover-ups across the state. Dioceses in Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, Greensburg, and Scranton unveiled plans for similar funds around the same time.
Critics saw the compensation funds as a move to undermine legislative efforts to give victims a chance to take their claims to court. By accepting money from the compensation fund, victims gave up their right to sue if lawmakers ever lift the statute of limitations. A bid to amend to Pennsylvania constitution to give victims more time to sue collapsed in 2019 when the Pennsylvania Department of State failed to properly advertise the proposal.
In its final report, the oversight committee called the program a success. Members of the committee, in addition to Stengel, were Kelley B. Hodge, former District Attorney for Philadelphia; and attorney Charles Scheeler, a retired partner in DLA Piper’s Baltimore office.
”The program’s statistical data tells a story of both tragedy and hope,” the report said, citing a total of 623 claims that were made on the fund, which was not capped. Individual payments also were not capped, the report said, which several lawyers disputed.
How claims were handled
Here’s a rundown of what happened with the 623 claims, as of Jan. 19:
Program administrators, Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, made 474 settlement offers. Of those, 21 totaling $2 million were rejected. An additional 15 were not accepted in time. One claim was withdrawn after determination. Three claims were on hold because of criminal investigations, and one was withdrawn before a determination was made.
Administrators denied 144 claims.
The archdiocese also had three active lawsuits pending in Philadelphia as of last November, according to its latest audited financial statement.
Shanin Specter, cofounder of Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter PC, said his firm advised some clients to reject offers because the fund paid no more than $500,000 to an individual. Merson also said there were no payments above $500,000.
Stengel disputed that there was a limit to individual offers. “There was no cap. To say there was a $500,000 cap is simply wrong,” he said.
The report did not say why claims were rejected. Under the program’s rules, only victims of abuse by clergy employed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were eligible. Also, the archdiocese, which covers Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, did not accept claims for abuse by priests who belonged to independent religious orders.
Not all lawyers for clergy abuse victims were negative about diocesan reconciliation programs.
“There are some advocates who feel very strongly that those reconciliation programs were simply designed only to reduce their liability, and I don’t doubt that intention,” said Laura Ahearn, who is based in Suffolk County, N.Y, but represented clients in Philadelphia.
“However, in my caseload there were a lot of adult men and women who were in positions in the community where they just did not want their name out there. They did not want to go to court,” she said.
Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez said in a letter Thursday to members of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia posted on CatholicPhilly.com: “I am deeply sorry for the profound pain those victims endured.”
Though the reparations program has ended, he said, “the archdiocese will continue to offer comprehensive support to survivors of clergy sexual abuse.”