Victims’ Fund Part Of Solution
Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera and his colleagues in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Harrisburg and Erie have announced creation of funds to compensate victims of sexual abuse by priests or other church personnel.
The announcement is in response to a scathing investigative grand jury report in August that detailed such abuse over the last 70 years and, worse, extravagant efforts by generations of church leaders to cover up the offenses while allowing them to continue.
Critics, including state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, condemned the proposal.
“It’s now clear that the dioceses acknowledge the grand jury accurately unearthed horrific and extensive abuse and cover-up and, as a result, victims deserve compensation no matter when their abuse happened,” Shapiro said Thursday. “However, the grand jury recommended that victims deserve their day in court, not that the church should be the arbiter of its own punishment.”
In its report, the grand jury called on the Legislature to open a two-year window that would enable adults, who had been victimized as children, to sue dioceses in cases in which the statute of limitations had expired.
The House passed such a bill but Senate Republicans did not move it prior to recessing for the Nov. 6 election, and it’s not clear whether it will come up again when the Senate briefly reconvenes before the end of the session Nov. 28. But it is certain to come up in the next Legislature, which will include at least five new senators who favor the legislation.
But in the meantime, the compensation fund offers options to victims.
Shapiro and the grand jury say that victims want to be heard, but there is no way to know if that is universal. Some might prefer to seek compensation without the exposure and long waits inherent in trials and inevitable appeals.
And the dioceses cannot supersede state law. If the Legislature opens a litigation window, the existence of the compensation fund would not preclude victims from suing if they prefer that course. The law itself could emphasize that.
In establishing the Independent Survivors Compensation Program, the bishops drew on experience in New York, where average compensation was about $200,000 for each of more than 1,000 victims.
They hired Kenneth Feinberg, whose firm handled that program, the victims compensation fund for victims of Jerry Sandusky, and the fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Neither dioceses nor victims would be able to appeal Feinberg’s decisions. Historically, his decisions have been friendly mostly to victims.
Bambera and the other bishops did not disclose specifically how they would pay settlements, but that is an issue for their members.
The program is, as Shapiro said, an overdue acknowledgment of responsibility. Victims’ advocates should not dismiss it out of hand.