Diocese Creates Victim Compensation Fund
The Diocese of Scranton on Thursday announced the creation of a fund to compensate victims of sexual abuse, including those previously denied damages because the statute of limitations expired.
The Independent Survivors Compensation Program will be administered by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Kenneth R. Feinberg, which will independently evaluate each claim and determine the amount of compensation, the Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera,bishop of the Scranton diocese, said in a press release.
An independent oversight committee will oversee implementation and administration of the program, but it will have no say in deciding the amount of compensation. Neither the diocese nor the victim can appeal the decision.
The Scranton Diocese joined bishops in six other dioceses — Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Erie, Allentown and Pittsburgh — who announced the creation of similar programs. The Altoona-Johnstown diocese said it set up a victim fund in 1999.
The move comes nearly three months after a scathing grand jury report that detailed decades of abuse by Pennsylvania priests, including 59 from the Scranton diocese.
The report prompted the state legislature to consider expanding the statute of limitations on civil suits. Legislation to create a new two-year window passed the state House this year, but was shot down in the Senate.
In Scranton, Bambera said the program will require “significant resources,” but did not indicate how much money the diocese will earmark or how many people it expects will seek compensation. The diocese will use available reserves, sell assets and borrow money to compensate survivors. It will not use parish and school assets, contributions and bequests from parishioners or donations to the Diocesan Annual Appeal, he said.
Scranton is among five of the seven dioceses that hired Feinberg’s firm, which is nationally renowned for mediating complex cases. It handled several high profile cases, including the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and administers a compensation fund set up by New York diocese that has paid out $200 million to more than 1,000 victims.
Camille Biros, the firm’s business manager, said details of Scranton’s program are still being worked out. She said a number of factors will decide how much money a victim gets, including their age when abused, the nature of the abuse, the length of time it occurred and the impact it had on their life.
Potential claimants will be identified through diocese records. Those who previously reported abuse and received financial settlements will not be eligible for additional compensation from the fund, she said. Any new allegations will be referred to the district attorney’s office. If charges are not filed, it will not preclude a person from receiving compensation, however.
The creation of the funds got mixed reviews from attorneys, experts on the Catholic church and groups that support abuse survivors.
“This is an ideal way to respond to the needs of victims,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest from Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Catholic church. “It allows people to come forward in a non-adversarial basis . . . and get things resolved instead of litigating something for months and months, if not years.”
Becky Ianni, president of the Virginia chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she suspects the move is a preemptive strike against calls for the expanded statute of limitations.
“I think it has more to do with bishops protecting themselves and their reputations,” Ianni said. “What they fear most is facing tough questions under oath. If they can avoid going to court, they would like to do that.”
Attorney Kenneth Millman of Wyomissing also has concerns. He represented a man who was sexually abused by Rev. Francis Brennan at St. Therese Church in Shavertown in 1961. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2006 because the statute of limitations expired.
Although the compensation fund would allow his client to now seek damages, he’s not convinced it’s the best solution. He favors expanding the statute of limitations.
“From my experience, representing survivors of sexual abuse by priests, what they want from the Catholic church ... is transparency and accountability,” Millman said. “The civil justice system is by far the best place to achieve all of those things.”
Michael Baumann, a sexual abuse survivor who runs a blog on clergy abuse, said he’s skeptical of the diocese’s claim it will have no control over the fund.
“It’s their money. They are gong to exercise some control over it, I don’t care what they say to the contrary,” Baumann said.
The diocese anticipates setting up a website for survivors to obtain information and claim forms. The program is anticipated to launch in January.
Baumann, of Chesapeake, Virginia, was sexually abused in 1973 and 1974 in East Stroudsburg by the Rev. Robert J. Gibson, one of the predator priests identified in the grand jury report. He is among the victims who could not sue because their claims were time barred. He said he needs more information before deciding if he will file a claim.
“The devil is in the details,” he said. “I want to see what other requirement come along with this.”
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