Dioceses’ compensation funds shouldn’t end Pa. victims’ right to sue, advocates say

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks,  says creating compensation funds is a step in the right direction, but retroactive lawsuits should be an option too. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, says creating compensation funds is a step in the right direction, but retroactive lawsuits should be an option too. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Seven of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses have announced plans to create funds to compensate those abused by priests as children, for whom the statute of limitations has expired.

Some victim advocates said the funds are welcome; others said they give churches an easy out. But both camps agree, this shouldn’t be the end of the reforms.

The announcement of the funds came a few months after a landmark grand jury report documented decades of alleged child sexual abuse by clergy. It included a number of recommendations for dioceses and state lawmakers to fix longstanding problems that led to abuse going unreported.

One of those recommendations was a two-year window for retroactive lawsuits on old, statute-limited abuse cases against negligent institutions. In a bitter legislative battle, top lawmakers balked at passing a bill to create such a window.

They floated compensation funds as part of a replacement proposal. But the whole effort ultimately crashed.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who was abused by a priest as a teenager, was the chief backer of the retroactivity measure and plans to bring it back in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

He said creating compensation funds is a step in the right direction, but retroactive lawsuits should be an option too.

“Some victims like the compensation fund,” he said. “Some want to be able to go into that and not have to worry about a long, hard-fought court battle.”

But others were more skeptical of the dioceses’ motives.

Pennsylvania’s Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said she’s spoken with hundreds of victims, and many don’t want to seek compensation from the institution they feel failed them.

“They want their day in court, they want individuals to be deposed,” Storm said. “They want evidence collection, they want to expose the perpetrators and the institutions who covered them up.”

Harrisburg Diocese spokesman Mike Barley said if the window is allowed, the resulting lawsuits would bankrupt the church, and survivors would end up with no compensation.

He said the compensation program is expected to launch early next year. It will be led by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who has specialized in administering similar types of victims’ programs, including the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation fund for the Archdiocese of New York and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Storm said her biggest concern about the funds is that victims who want to take advantage of them will be manipulated.

“It’s not safe. It’s not trauma-informed. It’s not protective,” she said. “And I know they’re bringing in a board and they’re hiring other staff who may have victim involvement, but at the end of the day, those people are working for the Catholic Church. So, their interest is for the Catholic Church, not for the survivors coming forward.”

She advised any victim who wants to use the funds to enlist the help of a third party, such as a lawyer or victim advocate.

Barley said those who apply for compensation and reach a settlement will be asked to sign an agreement that they won’t pursue future legal action.

He couldn’t put a dollar amount on what the fund will hold but said it will be “in the millions.” The money will come from diocesan investments, reserve funds, and insurers, but not from parish weekly collections.

The commonwealth’s other dioceses — except Altoona-Johnstown, which promoted its past work on victims’ behalf but isn’t creating a new fund — are working on similar plans.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who ordered the grand jury report that largely led to this reckoning among dioceses, met the news of the compensation funds with caution.

He said churches should not be the arbiter of their own punishments and urged lawmakers to pass Rozzi’s full slate of reforms.

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