Why a Victim of Sexual Abuse by a Broome Priest Gave His Compensation Back to the Church
By Maggie Gilroy
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin
September 28, 2018
When he was a child, a Broome County priest sexually abused him.
About 30 years later, the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse offered him money in compensation for the trauma he endured.
How the victim chose to spend it is a testament to the process of healing.
Now an adult no longer living in the area, the man is using the money to aid two Broome County food pantries and to purchase Masses to be said for the victims of clerical sex abuse — as well as for their abusers.
He hopes the donation will demonstrate forgiveness and bring healing at a time when major bombshells — such as the Pennsylvania grand jury report of abuse by more than 300 priests, and allegations against former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — have triggered hurt and rage against the Catholic church.
"I didn’t feel that I needed to heal. But a lot of other people do," the victim said. "And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. There is a tremendous amount of hurt and anger and sorrow and suffering out there, which is all entirely valid and lamentable, and I hope bit by bit can be mitigated, and maybe even brought to a sense of peace and comfort somehow.”
His $5,000 settlement, offered from the diocese on July 23, is part of the Syracuse Diocese's Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP).
The victim is a Broome County native who no longer resides in the area and requested anonymity because he has not told others of the abuse he endured. However, the Syracuse Diocese — which encompasses Broome, Chenango, Cortland, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga and Oswego counties — confirmed the man is a member of the program and received compensation.
The victim also provided the Press & Sun-Bulletin/pressconnects.com a letter issued from the IRCP administrators containing his settlement offer, as well as a copy of two checks dated Aug. 27 written to the diocese, amounting to the $5,000 settlement offer issued through the IRCP.
Beginning in February, the IRCP gave more than 80 victims the chance to receive compensation from the church.
|Bishop Robert Cunningham, right, speaks with Kenneth Feinberg, one of the lawyers directing a clergy sexual abuse settlement program, after a news conference announcing the program Wednesday. (Photo: Hannah Schwarz / Staff photo)|
The settlements were paid out of the diocese's general liability insurance fund. As the Syracuse Diocese is self-insured, every parish pays an insurance premium to the general liability fund.
"That's an operating expense they always have," said Danielle Cummings, chancellor of the Syracuse Diocese and director of the diocese's Office of Communications, in a phone interview. "So, these aren't dollars they would choose to use for any type of anything mission-oriented or their ministry, anything along those lines."
The money does not come out of any other church funds such as the HOPE Appeal, Catholic Charities, charitable funds or the diocese's Cathedral Restoration Fund.
In February, the victim received a letter from the diocese offering him participation in the program.
'It's not the kind of thing you forget'
The victim was sexually abused in 1987 or 1988, when he was about 10 or 11 years old.
"I remembered it as clearly as someone can at that age," he said of the incident. "It’s not the kind of thing you forget. But by the same token, thankfully, there were far more serious things done to other individuals than were done to me. And my experience was not a scarring or life-altering experience.”
The victim reported the crime to the diocese in 2008 after reading a news article about the priest who abused him, outlining allegations that were "strikingly similar" to the victim's experience, he said.
He never filed a criminal complaint.
At the time the victim reported the abuse, the priest was dead.
"I felt it was my duty to the church and to God and to other people in the diocese and elsewhere to tell the diocese what my experience was so that they could understand better the scope of the problem that was out there," he said. "I feel you can’t solve a problem until you understand it and all of its manifestations.”
The victim said the diocese responded quickly and kindly, offering to cover mental health counseling and/or psychiatric care.
Not feeling the need for any services, he turned them down.
"I reiterated to them that my real reason for reporting was not to seek anything, but to try to facilitate their grasp of the breadth of at least this individual’s behavior so that, more generally speaking, they could better grasp the breadth of the problem at hand and address it," he said.
'I was surprised they offered me money'
Ten years after reporting his experience to the diocese, the victim did not expect to receive money from the church.
“I was surprised that they offered me money, frankly," he said. "Because my experience was uncomfortable and it was wrong and it shouldn’t have happened, but I was not an individual who needed medical care. I didn’t need psychological care. I had moved past it."
Despite his surprise, he accepted the settlement offer of $5,000 without any specific plan for the funds. As per a requirement of the program, he reported the crime to authorities.
"Very quickly, I just thought this happened for a reason, and I just have to see it as an opportunity to do good," he said. "This is not my money; I didn’t earn this money."
Another requirement of the program indicates that individuals who received compensation through the program give up their right to take legal action against the diocese and individual members of the diocese. This was not a problem for the victim, who did not plan to pursue any legal action against the diocese.
"I saw it as two things. I saw it as an opportunity to bring good, to try to bring good, from a situation that was evil," he said. "And I also saw it as a chance to try to exemplify Christ and his mission of bringing good news, especially to those who are in pain and who are suffering and who are in hard times."
Prayer and food
About four days after receiving his check, the victim contacted the diocese. At first, he wanted to purchase a Mass to be said either in memorial, or as a living intention, for the eight priests who have served in Broome County and were accused of misconduct.
An intention is a time set aside during a Mass to pray either for an individual or family, living or dead. It can be purchased from a church's parish office prior to the Mass the intention is dedicated to, and costs $10.
“Those who are still alive and have been accused of something like this I think have to be in terrible pain and have to be really wrestling with a lot of difficult feelings, to say the least. And that’s not to detract at all from the pain and the difficult situations that their victims were put in and, in many cases, are still in every day," he said. "I don’t want to detract from that in the least. But the men who perpetrated these abuses I feel very strongly deserve our prayers and our forgiveness."
At $10 a Mass, a Mass said for the eight priests would cost $80.
"That money could do much more," he said.
|Closeup image of hands and rosary (Photo: tiero, Getty Images/iStockphoto)|
And he feared that if members of the congregation heard the name of a specific priest, it could incite anger or bad feelings, and they may not want to pray for that priest.
After consulting with Cummings, they determined that the total of about 120 alleged abusers and victims is about equal to the 124 parishes in the diocese.
So, the victim decided to purchase one Mass at every single church in the Syracuse Diocese.
The Mass' intentions will be dedicated to both "local members of the clergy who have abused, and for those who have been harmed.”
Those "harmed" can include victims' friends, families and parish communities.
"We've all been harmed by this awful, awful time in our church," Cummings said. "And to know that he is thinking of all of us, as a community of faith, is inspiring."
These Masses are separate from a Sept. 15 Mass held at at every parish in the diocese at the request of Bishop Robert Joseph Cunningham. The Sept. 15 Mass was held with the intention of the church asking for forgiveness and for the healing of victims of abuse. All weekend Masses on Sept. 15 and 16 had these intentions as well.
The Masses purchased by the victim will be determined by the individual church and will be held during a Sunday Mass on a date when the church does not have a previously booked intention.
“When they get to it, they get to it,” the victim said.
The intentions will be said at Masses in 134 churches (a total of 124 parishes due to links and mergers) in the Diocese of Syracuse.
Cummings sent a letter to the diocese's priests, dated Sept. 7, requesting that the Masses be said, and informing them of the context and encouraging priests to provide this context to their parishioners at the time of the Mass.
"During these challenging days in the Church, I hope this letter brings you a small amount of joy," the letter reads.
The total the victim spent on all of the Masses is $1,240.
So, he wrote a second check for the remaining balance of $3,760. He requested this check be split between two Catholic Charities of Broome County food pantries: Mother Teresa's Cupboard in Endicott, and the Community Empowerment Center in Binghamton.
"To have the ability to put this issue and the need for prayer about it in front of that many praying people is beyond comprehension and powerful to me," he said. "And the money to the soup kitchens, I hope will be comforting people well into the cold time of year.”
The IRCP program
The Syracuse Diocese initially announced the IRCP on Feb. 14, which also fell on Ash Wednesday. For Catholics, Ash Wednesday is a day of reconciliation.
"There is no question we have made missteps in handling this crisis, and we continue to look for meaningful ways to reach out to those who have been harmed," Cunningham said in a letter announcing the program.
Lawyers Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros retained "complete and sole discretion over all eligibility agreements and the settlement compensation amounts for eligible individuals," Cunningham said in his letter. "The diocese will accept their determinations without questions."
Feinberg and Biros served as independent administrators and worked with victims who had previously notified the diocese that they were harmed by a member of clergy.
Originally, the diocese had a list of 76 individuals known by name who had notified the church over the years that they had been harmed in some way. A secondary list also contains individuals not by name, such as those identified as "John Doe" in lawsuits or those reported in letters by parents or loved ones of victims.
The individuals on the secondary list were allowed to participate in the program if they came forward and identified themselves.
As of Sept. 12, the diocese sent 84 claim packets to individuals.
At the start of the program, a total of 40 priests were accused of abuse. Of those, 17 were living and permanently removed from ministry.
But since the program was announced, additional priests have been accused of abuse. A total number of priests accused of abuse in the Syracuse Diocese is still being determined.
Participants in the IRCP are free to use the funds received through the settlements however they chose.
"Our advice is you do with the money whatever you think," Cummings said. "We're trying to keep this entirely independent."
As of Sept. 12, the victim is the only IRCP participant who notified Cummings that he would like to give his compensation back to the church.
Cummings said the program will most likely end in mid-October. Once the program is complete, the diocese will announce its total cost and participation.
"This is not an attempt to throw money at a problem," Cummings said. "This is an attempt to recognize a major failure in how something very important was mishandled. And it's also an acknowledgement that there isn't really any dollar amount that can replace the harm that has taken place."
While the IRCP is ending shortly, the diocese encourages victims to continue to come forward.
"We have really come very far," Cummings said. "We have more work to do on certainly institutional accountability — that, I think, is going to be the next turn of what we're doing here — but there has been a tremendous amount of work done. And the IRCP is another step in that."
The right time
While the victim was contemplating how to spend his money, the grand jury report in Pennsylvania was released, implicating 301 priests of sexual abuse. Of those priests, 14 were at one time assigned to parishes in the Northern Tier.
In June, allegations against former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick claim that the 87-year-old cardinal sexually abused a minor 47 years ago when he was a priest in the Archdiocese of New York.
The allegations were called "credible and substantiated" by church officials, resulting in the cardinal's resignation from active ministry.
But it wasn't just the allegations that horrified the victim while contemplating how to spend his IRCP funds. It was also the reactions to those allegations.
He cited an Aug. 22 CNN article reporting that Catholic priest Basil John Hutsko was beaten while praying at his church in Merrillville, Indiana. According to the report, the attacker yelled "This is for all the little kids" during the assault.
The victim also read a New York Times opinion piece, published on Aug. 23, in which the writer chronicles standing up in Mass and confronting a priest. In the piece, titled "I Stood Up in Mass and Confronted My Priest. You Should, Too," writer Naka Nathaniel also calls for "every ordained member of the Catholic Church" to resign.
"Catholics cannot keep on filling the pews every Sunday," Nathaniel wrote. "It is wrong to support the church."
Those two particular reactions struck a chord with the victim.
"The story can’t end with hatred and bitterness and tears and harsh words. As justified as all that is, it can’t end there," he said. "We as a church, and as people, we are the church. The church isn’t Pope Francis. It’s not this archbishop or that cardinal. It’s not this bishop and it’s not this pedophilic priest. The church is me and you and our families and our friends who sit beside us every Sunday in the pews. And we need to bring good from evil.”
Recently — after the victim chose to donate give his IRCP funds back to the church — Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a retired Vatican diplomat, claimed in an 11-page letter that Pope Francis covered up sexual abuse allegations against McCarrick.
While the pope has not resigned, it's clear that there is still a long road ahead for leaders and members of the Catholic Church.
“Anger with the global church’s response to clerical sexual abuse is understandable, but we must calm our anger, forget our rage, for it only leads to more evil and acts which help no one and create more victims," the victim said.
A 'gift of hope'
The victim said he said he felt "detached" after mailing the money in.
"There was a part of me when I wrote the checks and was getting ready to mail them that thought, ‘Am I going to feel a twinge of second guessing after I put this in the mail?’” he said.
"I didn’t’ have any attachment to this money. And so it came in, I had these ideas, I prayed on it, and I got rid of it,” he said.
According to the Diocese of Syracuse's website, the diocese recently received a subpoena from the attorney general. The diocese "is ready and willing to work together on the investigation," a statement on the website reads.
"The District Attorneys have been made aware of any allegation of abuse of a minor and have been provided with the names of those accused along with their status and any information they may request," the statement reads. "Bishop Cunningham will continue to work closely with our local District Attorneys and will cooperate fully with the Attorney General's investigation."
Cummings calls the victim a "gift of hope" through the darkness.
"I think he has given witness to finding healing and reconciliation," Cummings said. "I think that he has spent a great deal in prayer and feels that he wants to offer hope to Catholics and non-Catholics in this time that is a very dark chapter in the history of the church."
The victim says he still attends Mass regularly. His experience has strengthened his faith.
But it's also helped him put his faith into perspective.
"I, for a very long time, held priests, monks and nuns in very high regard and I put them on a pedestal. I saw them as superhuman," he said. "I thought that their collars and their robes and their habits bestowed on them perfection. It doesn’t. They’re humans."
Every October, the diocese counts the number of parishioners who attend Mass weekly in its parishes. An October 2017 count recorded 64,128 parishioners.
Over the next few months, thousands of parishioners will pray for both the victims and their abusers.
And that includes the victim's abuser.
“This is a humbling experience for us," he said. "I look at this and I say ‘somehow in all of this, meaning the sex abuse scandal in the church, somehow good will come from this.' I have faith in that and I’m trying to demonstrate that little bit by little bit here. And each one of us can do something.”