February 15, 2023
By Ivey DeJesus
A federal bankruptcy court on Wednesday approved a plan calling for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg to establish an $18 million trust to pay settlements with victims of clergy sex abuse.
The so-called reorganization plan approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania also establishes stipulated child protection protocols.
The court decision comes nearly three years after the diocese filed for bankruptcy amid mounting claims from victims of clergy sex abuse.
Officials from SNAP – which stands for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – decried the plans to compensate survivors focused more on protecting the church’s assets and information than providing restorative justice to adults who were traumatized as children by clergy or church employees.
“The simple fact is that monetary reparations for a lifetime of bearing the pain of abuse is pittance in the grand scheme of things, especially given the vast wealth of the church,” SNAP said in a written statement. “There is no way to make up for the lifelong suffering brought on by sexual assault, and the sham that is Harrisburg church officials claiming indigence only adds to that suffering.”
The Harrisburg Diocese in 2020 filed for Chapter 11 protection in the wake of a statewide grand jury investigation that found that priests in the diocese and five others in Pennsylvania had sexually molested generations of minors.
The 15-county Harrisburg Diocese was named in the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury led by then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro, which found that church leaders had for decades covered up the crimes.
SNAP on Wednesday further said that church officials should be compelled to fulfill several directives, including: updating their list of abusers to include the new names learned during the bankruptcy process; providing local law enforcement with all information related to sex offenses, regardless of the abuser’s status; and to use all resources at their disposal – include diocesan websites and parish bulletins – to ensure that parishioners are aware of these updates and to encourage survivors to come forward and report to police.
“Church officials in Harrisburg must be frank and honest with their congregations if they wish to help survivors and create safer environments within their churches,” SNAP said. “They should use every resource at their disposal to reassure parishioners and parents that both children and adults are safe.”
Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer noted that the process of making restitution to survivors of clergy sexual abuse had been a difficult and painful one for the diocese.
“This was a difficult, emotional process for many, most especially the abuse survivors who served on the Tort Claimants Committee and those that aided them in their duties,” he said. “I particularly wish to express my gratitude and appreciation to these survivors; you represented all survivors who presented a claim during this process and the difficult work you completed was vital in achieving a resolution. While it is my prayer that the Trust established through this process will bring some level of restitution for the abuse each survivor has endured, I acknowledge that no amount of money will ever make reparations for these horrific and sinful acts.”
Gainer said he attended the court hearing along with diocesan legal counsel.
The court confirmation, he said, brings the reorganization process, which started on Feb. 19, 2020, to a conclusion.
“As you will read in the pages of the plan, the diocese recognizes and is fully committed to addressing the horrors of clergy abuse,” Gainer said. “In addition to establishing the trust, we will continue to offer mental, spiritual and pastoral counseling to survivors, if they so desire. We will work tirelessly so all survivors know that the church cares for them. Our foremost concern will be their emotional and spiritual welfare and we will continue to offer survivors immediate, loving and compassionate care.”
Gainer said the diocese’s youth protection protocols will continue to enhance current policies, as it increases its educational efforts on recognizing potential child abuse.
SNAP called on church officials to modify its child protection protocol by updating the list of abusers to include the new names learned during the bankruptcy process and providing local police with all information related to sex offenses, regardless of the abuser’s status.
“It is obvious that no institution can effectively police itself, so we are hopeful that Pennsylvania’s law enforcement officials will work diligently to develop novel ways to both provide survivors of abuse with justice and prevent abuse from occurring in the future,” SNAP said.