Editorial: The awful math of church abuse settlements
December 05, 2020
It can be hard to calculate damages when you can’t see the breakage.
Crash a car, and the body shop can tell you precisely what it will cost to turn bent and twisted metal back into a shiny vehicle with a sleek paint job. Burn down a house, and the insurance company knows to the penny how much it takes to replace it.
But how do you know the cost of a human spirit? If anyone should know, it should be the Catholic Church, an organization built on the saving and tending of the soul.
On Thursday, the Kenneth Feinberg Group announced the end of two years of work as independent mediator for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse grand jury report unveiled in 2018.
The mediator reported a bottom line of $19 million paid out to 224 claimants. It is the latest set of figures in a terrible math problem.
The grand jury report detailed 99 credibly accused priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese. There was a high of 369 claims, 70 of which were found ineligible, not because they were disputed but because of the terms of the fund set up. Of those that remained, 21 did not respond to the offers, and 52 rejected them. The average payment was $86,000.
That is higher than the $76,315 average that the Greensburg Diocese paid on 57 claims. It is less than half the average the Archdiocese of Philadelphia paid when it announced in May that 208 claims had been settled for $44 million.
Does that mean there was less tragic abuse in Greensburg or the abuse in Philadelphia was more egregious? No.
It means all the dioceses asked their mediators to do something undoubtedly necessary from a business standpoint and yet still shockingly cold. They haggled over the cost of a child’s betrayed body, broken heart and shattered soul.
“Early in the process, the settlement offers were good, reasonable settlements, six-figure offers,” Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer said about the process for his clients. “But in 2020, the offers were woefully less — $10,000, $15,000, $7,500 — and many people rejected those offers. They felt it was more trauma, an insult.”
It is easy to concentrate on the biggest numbers — the dollar amounts — when analyzing it all. The Pittsburgh Diocese did put $19 million out as penance.
But the most important numbers might be smaller. There were 224 claims settled, and there are more that are still pursuing court cases. There were 99 named priests. That suggests a large number of repeat offenders and a staggering culpability — ethically if not legally — for the church.
So maybe the question isn’t what the broken soul of the victim of sexual abuse is worth. Maybe the bigger issue is the price of the soul of a church that wouldn’t just look the other way but bargain over the damage when it came to light.