Albany Diocese Settled Abuse Case for Almost $1 Million

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
June 27, 2002

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany paid a confidential settlement of nearly $1 million in 1997 to a man who said he had been sexually abused for six years starting at age 12 by a priest who regularly plied him with drugs and alcohol.

The settlement of $997,500 was just short of the $1 million ceiling above which the diocese is required under its own rules to seek the consent of its finance council, an eight-member oversight board that includes seven lay people.

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany said in a statement yesterday that the amount of the settlement was "atypical and unusually high."

He said that 9 of the diocese's 450 priests had sexually abused minors in the last 25 years, and that there had been 11 settlements, most ranging from $50,000 to $150,000, that totaled $2.3 million. All were paid for with insurance.

The lawyer for the victim, who said he had been seeking more than $1 million, said he was convinced that the diocese had agreed to the amount of the final settlement in an effort to keep it from the scrutiny of the diocese's finance council. A senior diocesan official acknowledged that had the settlement been $2,500 higher, the council would have become involved. But he said he did not know if that played a role in the payment.

As the national clergy sexual abuse scandal has escalated in the last six months, many Catholics have been stunned and concerned about the amount of money that the church has paid in confidential settlements and in counseling costs to people who were sexually abused by priests. Those concerns have led to questions about whether there was adequate oversight of church finances.

Diocesan finance councils, appointed by bishops, are supposed to provide a layer of accontability, and sometimes do. In May, the finance council in the Archdiocese of Boston rejected a multimillion-dollar settlement with 86 victims of Father John J. Geoghan -- a settlement that had already been approved by Cardinal Bernard Law and archdiocesan lawyers.

For years, confidential settlements have been the norm in sexual abuse cases. They protect the identity of the victim but they also conceal the abusers, some who continued serving in parishes, hospitals and other ministries.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops passed a policy on sexual abuse at its meeting in Dallas this month that ends secret settlements. The Diocese of Albany had already announced in May that it would no longer seek confidential settlements, said the Rev. Kenneth Doyle, its chancellor.

The victim in the 1997 case, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he was first abused by the Rev. Mark Haight in 1974 when he was 12 years old and recovering from an appendectomy in a hospital. Father Haight was then a deacon serving as a hospital chaplain who often ministered to child patients while dressed in a clown suit. The diocese had already made public that it paid a settlement to another victim of Father Haight in 1989, but that amount has not been disclosed. Father Haight, who returned to ministry after receiving treatment after the 1989 settlement, was eventually stripped of his ministry responsibilities after the 1997 case. But he has not been defrocked, and he could not be reached for comment.

The victim in this case did not want to be interviewed. His lawyer, John Aretakis, said that his client wanted to make the settlement public in order to break the secrecy that he felt had protected the priest and the diocese. But the diocese, in its statement, charged that Mr. Aretakis had recently sought additional payments in exchange for keeping the settlement secret. Mr. Aretakis called the claim baseless.

However, both Mr. Aretakis and the diocesan chancellor, Father Doyle, suggested that one of the reasons the settlement was so large was the grave nature of the abuse. Mr. Aretakis said the frequency and perversity of the sexual abuse had left the victim emotionally devastated.

"This was a client I had to take the gun out of his mouth once," Mr. Aretakis said. "He wanted to kill the priest, and he wanted to kill himself."

Settlements in the range of $1 million for a case that never went to trial are "clearly the exception" said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who has handled hundreds of sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church. He said that such large settlements usually result when the crime falls within the statute of limitations, when it can be proved that the diocese was negligent or when the victim suffered profound damage.

The victim in the 1997 case said Father Haight molested him as often as five times a week from 1974 to 1980, according to Mr. Aretakis. After the first incident at Albany Memorial Hospital, Father Haight ingratiated himself with the victim's family and eventually took the boy on trips to Washington and Los Angeles, Mr. Aretakis said.

The victim went on to marry and have a child, while Father Haight remained a friend of the extended family. In 1989, Father Haight left for New Mexico, telling the family he had needed a vacation and sending them photographs of himself with inscriptions praising the scenery.

The trip to New Mexico, though, was to attend a treatment center for evaluation and rehabilitation. After that interlude, Father Haight was reassigned to work in a succession of hospitals in and near Albany.

The Albany diocese said in its statement yesterday, "Psychologists who evaluated the priest at a treatment facility assured the diocese of the priest's fitness for return to ministry in a limited setting such as a hospital."

The victim in the 1997 case finally decided to speak up, Mr. Aretakis said, after he saw Father Haight at a family wedding in 1996 playfully tossing a young boy in the air, and sensed that the priest was grooming another victim.

The victim phoned Glens Falls Hospital, where Father Haight was then serving as a chaplain, and made an anonymous complaint. The hospital consulted the diocese, which investigated, and soon removed Father Haight from ministry.

In 1997, Mr. Aretakis asked the diocese for a multimillion-dollar settlement. He says he never even filed a lawsuit. When he asked why the diocese could not offer more than $1 million, Michael L. Costello, the diocese's lawyer, sent him a letter explaining that any payout of $1 million or more would require "the recommendation and consent" of the finance council. He attached to the letter relevant pages from the church's code of canon law.

The settlement agreement specifies that if the confidentiality is broken, the victim or his lawyer or family members would be required to return $400,000 to the diocese.

Father Doyle said that the diocese had "not yet decided" if it will try to seek the penalty. As the sexual abuse scandal has escalated, many victims and lawyers have broken their confidentiality agreements. Father Doyle said that in this climate "it's probably a good gamble" that there would be no repercussions.


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