Compensating Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors a Meaningful Step for Church (editorial)
By Editorial Board
February 15, 2018
Bishop1.jpg Bishop Robert Cunningham of the Syracuse Diocese announces an independent reconciliation compensation program for survivors of clergy sexual abuse during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Syracuse.(Lauren Long | firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Catholic Diocese of Syracuse took a big step Wednesday to make amends for the sexual abuse perpetrated against children by its priests. Bishop Robert Cunningham announced that the diocese would create a program to compensate survivors, "to seek forgiveness for the irreparable acts of the past and perhaps, bring a sense of healing to some."
It is a stunning turnaround. In the not too distant past, the diocese was so reluctant to admit any fault that at least one survivor of clergy sexual abuse was forced to sue the church for counseling money.
It was during the deposition phase of that lawsuit that Cunningham said the children were "culpable" in their own abuse - a statement that sent shockwaves through the community and angered many survivors, who demanded his removal. At the time, the bishop apologized for his poor choice of words. On Wednesday, Cunningham stated flatly that "no child is responsible for his or her abuse ever." Amen to that.
It is highly symbolic that the bishop chose to make his announcement on Ash Wednesday. Catholics receive ashes on their foreheads to remind them of their mortality and to call them to repent for their sins. The church hierarchy at every level has plenty to atone for in its handling of the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal. In addition to the children who were harmed, the church's actions to shield perpetrators and deny responsibility shook the faith of many Catholics and wounded the institution's moral authority.
The Syracuse diocese's Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program is a step toward healing. The program will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros. They have vast experience in dealing with the victims of tragedies such as the 9/11 attacks, the BP oil spill and the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as administering similar sex abuse compensation programs for dioceses in the New York City area. Feinberg and Biros will have the sole authority to decide who is eligible for compensation and how much they will be paid. Anyone accepting a settlement will have to forfeit his or her right to sue the church.
That decision is complicated by growing momentum in Albany for legislation that would allow survivors of child sexual abuse who are past the statute of limitations to bring lawsuits. Gov. Andrew Cuomo included the Child Victims Act in his budget proposal, and a new Siena poll found 79 percent of New Yorkers support it. The New York State Catholic Conference has lobbied hard against opening a one-year window for civil lawsuits, saying it would bankrupt the church. Some survivors view the compensation program as a cynical gambit to settle cases before the bill becomes law. We pray there's more to it than that.
The Syracuse diocese is limiting its compensation program to the 76 survivors who have previously alleged sexual abuse by clergy. The cutoff may strand survivors who, for whatever reason, have not yet come forward. It is an imperfect remedy, but perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
In the past, we have urged Cunningham to name the 11 priests in the diocese facing credible accusations of child sexual abuse. He moved a bit closer to transparency by announcing he would confirm the names of priests if survivors wish to reveal them publicly. Again, not perfect, but an improvement.
Money cannot fully compensate survivors of clergy sex abuse for their suffering, though it may help them move forward in their lives. It is more significant that, at last, the church is willing to pay it.