HARRISBURG — Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania are moving to establish victim compensation funds similar to those used by five dioceses in New York to provide $200 million to 1,000 victims of priest sex abuse.
The announcement, made Thursday, comes three weeks after the state Legislature left the Capitol without passing reform legislation that would have allowed sex abuse victims to sue in cases where the crimes happened so long ago they’ve passed the normal statute of limitations.
Church officials and the insurance industry had lobbied against that proposal in favor of allowing them to create this type of compensation fund. The Pennsylvania bishops didn’t say Thursday how much they expect to spend on compensating victims.
The issue is playing out in the wake of a damning grand jury report that found that bishops in Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton had covered up for 300 predator priests who’d molested at least 1,000 victims over decades. That report followed similar probes into the church’s handling of predator priests in the Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia dioceses.
“Providing compensation to these survivors is the right thing to do,” said the Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera. “Several weeks ago, Pennsylvania’s Bishops announced support of such a program, which was recently discussed but not enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Diocese of Scranton is, therefore, moving forward and is offering this program for survivors.”
Bishops in Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton and Philadelphia all announced Thursday that they are moving forward with the creation of compensation funds.
Catholic officials in Allentown and Erie didn’t provide specific information about their plans.
The three other bishops said their compensation funds would be managed by Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, who oversaw the 9/11 victim compensation fund, along with the fund for victims in the New York Catholic dioceses.
“It is my sincere hope that this program will help to enhance and increase our already ongoing efforts to assist the survivors of child sexual abuse. As more details regarding our plan become finalized, we will be releasing them to the public,” Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer said.
“The Survivors’ Compensation Program will begin providing financial resources and other assistance to survivors, as an addition to the services already being provided, early next year,” Gainer said.
Each diocese will have its own compensation fund overseen by a separate oversight commission, said Mike Barley, a spokesman for the Harrisburg Diocese.
The bishops said diocese officials will have no authority over the oversight committees.
Gainer said the fund will not use funds from parishioner donations.
The diocese will use reserve funds, the yield from investments and “will also be working with our insurances, who will be another source of these funds,” he said.
In Scranton, Bambera said that diocese may “sell assets and borrow money as needed.”
The move to create the compensation fund shouldn’t end the conversation about whether to open a civil window for lawsuits, said Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of CHILD USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank focusing on child protection.
“I do not oppose such funds so long as they are not subject to non-disclosure agreements, are not mandatory, and provide fair compensation for the damage done to the survivor,” she said. “They can be a good avenue for the survivor who is fragile or who doesn’t want to go through the rigors of the legal system.”
But she said lawmakers should pass legislation to allow lawsuits to give victims who want to go to court the opportunity to do so, she said.
“For those who seek the facts of their cases, and who want the public to learn more, a window is indispensable,” she said.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro agreed, saying that victims "deserve their day in court."
Shapiro added: "These undefined compensation funds do not give a pass to lawmakers — the Legislature should return to Harrisburg, do their jobs and pass the grand jury’s four reforms.”
In light of the announcements from the other bishops, the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese on Thursday released a statement indicating that it’s had a victims compensation fund in place since 1999.
“Since that time, assistance in the form of compensation and counseling has been provided to nearly 300 individuals. The diocese has offered more than $2.8 million for victim counseling,” Tony DeGol, a spokesman for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese said.