Syracuse Catholic churches, schools will have to come up with $50 million for sex abuse scandal

Post-Standard - [Syracuse NY]

July 28, 2023

By Marnie Eisenstadt

Catholic churches and schools across Central New York will have to make hard decisions about how to pay the bill for decades of sexual abuse and coverups at the hands of priests.

Under a new settlement reached between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, the parishes and schools are responsible for half of the $100 million that will be paid out to victims and their families. The rest — $50 million — will be paid by the diocese.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s doable,” said Danielle L. Cummings, a spokeswoman for the diocese.

The 116 parishes will be responsible for $45 million; the 21 schools, 10 missions and Catholic Charities will have to pay $5 million, Cummings said.

The money cannot come from the Hope Appeal, an amount each parish is required to raise for the diocese each year.

Cummings said it’s possible some parishes will have to sell property or consolidate to make the payments.

“I cannot predict what will happen,” she said.

Bishop Douglas Lucia, in a letter and FAQ to parishioners explaining the situation, suggested that there are an increasing number of unused buildings and parishes may decide to sell them.

If the $45 million is split evenly among the parishes, it would mean a bill of nearly $400,000 for each.

The details are part of a settlement that was announced Thursday by the diocese and lawyers for more than 120 abuse victims. The agreement was more than three years in the making, and there are still many details that need to ironed out before it is filed with the court.

All but two of the Roman Catholic Dioceses in New York filed for bankruptcy to protect their assets after New York passed the Child Victims Act, which lets anyone up to age 55 file a civil lawsuit for sex abuse that happened to them as a child. The act was passed, in large part, to deal with the sexual abuse scandal that had been covered up in the Roman Catholic Church for decades.

The Syracuse diocese filed for bankruptcy in June 2020 after more than 38 lawsuits were filed against it by victims who alleged that priests and employees sexually abused them as children. At the time, Lucia said he made the decision to ensure that every victim would get something for their pain.

But victims’ advocates accused the diocese of using the bankruptcy to shield itself from massive settlements and embarrassment in civil court. Once the diocese filed for bankruptcy, all of the victims’ cases were moved out of civil court, where there likely would have been jury trials and public airing of what happened, and into bankruptcy court.

“The survivors shouldn’t ever lose their right to the day in court,” said Taylor Stippel of Jeff Anderson and Associates, a firm representing victims in Syracuse and across the country. “We’re trying to make the best of the situation.”

The victims are now creditors in a process that is more sterile than a civil trial. Each person will be awarded a number of points based on the type of abuse, the extent of the abuse and when it happened, Stippel said. The more points, the higher the award.

Stippel said the money is just part of the settlement.

“Some of the transparency and truth-telling that was ripped from the survivors’ hands will be included in the settlement,” she said.

Stippel said both sides are working together to strengthen the child protection protocols that the diocese and parishes follow. Stippel said she also expects the settlement to require the diocese to release more information publicly, but she couldn’t say what.

Cummings pointed out that the diocese already maintains a public list of clergy with credible allegations of sexual abuse against them.

The bankruptcy settlement has not been filed with the court yet. According to details provided by the diocese, payments to victims will not occur until next spring, at the earliest.

In his letter explaining how the settlement payments will work, the bishop announced that this weekend’s Mass will be dedicated to the healing of everyone who has been harmed by the sexual abuse scandal.

The settlement amount is the nation’s second-largest to be paid by a diocese in a bankruptcy case triggered by sexual assault victim lawsuits. The Diocese of San Diego settled its claim in the early 2000s for $107 million.

Cynthia LaFave, one of the attorneys representing Syracuse victims, said it will send ripples through the nation.

“Sexual abuse survivors will understand that they are being heard,” she said.

Marnie Eisenstadt writes about people and public affairs in Central New York. Contact her anytime email | TwitterFacebook | 315-470-2246.