HARRISBURG – Compensation funds set up to settle claims filed by victims of abuse by priests have paid out more than $55 million to more than 300 victims across the state in the year since a landmark grand jury report examined the church’s role in covering up for predator priests, according to information released by the church and the law firm overseeing the compensation funds for most dioceses in Pennsylvania.
That total includes $43 million paid out by the Catholic dioceses in Allentown, Erie, Scranton, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said Camille Biros, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.,-based law firm managing the compensation funds of those dioceses.
The Harrisburg Diocese has paid out $12.1 million, so far, to settle claims, according to information provided by the diocese’s communications office.
In Pennsylvania, victims who were abused as children have until the age of 30 to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or those who covered up for the predators. The grand jury report, released Aug. 14, 2018, found that in almost every case detailed in the report, the abuse happened too long ago for the victims to be able to sue. The grand jury called on the state to create a window of opportunity for victims to sue even if their cases were past the existing statute of limitations.
The compensation funds were launched earlier this year by all of the dioceses examined in the 2018 grand jury report, but only after the state Legislature ended its fall session without passing a reform that would have made it easier for victims to sue.
Two years before the statewide grand jury report, a similar report examined the long-time cover-up of abuse by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. There is no compensation fund set up for victims in that diocese.
The Harrisburg diocese compensation funds are being managed by the Boston-based law firm of Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc. According to the statement provided by the Harrisburg Diocese, 112 survivors have “participated” in the compensation fund mediation process and 106 accepted settlement offers.
Church officials have said they don't plan to use donations from parishioners to cover the cost of settling these complaints, but the statements provided on Tuesday didn't explain where the money is coming from.
“In my own name, and in the name of the Diocesan Church of Harrisburg, I express our profound sorrow and apologize to the survivors of child sex abuse, the Catholic faithful and the general public for the abuses that took place and for those Church officials who failed to protect children," Harrisburg Bishop Ronald W. Gainer said in a statement provided for this story. "We have and continue to take steps forward to support survivors and ensure these abuses never occur again.”
Biros declined on Tuesday to specify how many of the claims have originated in each of the five dioceses her law firm is working with.
Overall, 739 people have filed claims from Allentown, Erie, Scranton, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh dioceses. So far, 239 claims have been settled with the victims accepting the compensation offer, Biros said.
The largest payout was $500,000, she said.
Twenty claims were determined by the mediators to be ineligible for compensation and 4 people refused the compensation offers.
Twenty-three of the settled claims, amounting to $3 million in compensation payments originated in the Erie Catholic Diocese, said Anne-Marie Welsh, a spokeswoman for the diocese.
Investigators hired by the Erie diocese had identified 156 potential victims known to potentially be in a position to file a claim, she said. Only 52 have done so, thus far, she said. The period to file a claim in Erie ends on Thursday, she said.
“We expect it will take several weeks for the final claims to be brought to closure. At that time, we will make a final report on the fund available to the public,” Welsh said.
The maximum payment made to settle a claim by a victim in the Erie diocese was $400,000, she said.
"Some could be tempted to want to close this chapter of our history and move on, but that would be a disservice not only to survivor/victims but also to the faithful who fill our pews every Sunday," according to a copy of a letter Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico has asked to be read in Mass at this weekend's church services. "As with any event that has had a broad impact on so many people, it must be remembered, in part, to ensure that the changes we make in the church and in our world are deep and lasting."
The grand jury had concluded that there were likely 1,000 victims abused by priests in Pennsylvania. Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Monday that a tip line set up by his office has received 1,862 calls.
Victims who participated in the compensation fund mediation process may either have not wanted to go through the experience of suing the church or they may have been unwilling to wait for the state to create a window for them to sue, said Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of Child USA, the Philadelphia-based group focused on reforming the law to better treat victims of child abuse.
Hamilton said it’s likely that there are victims who refused to take part in the mediation process because they want the opportunity to sue the church in the future.
Hamilton said due to resistance from Republican legislative leaders, there’s little reason to believe that victims will get a breakthrough any time soon that allows them to sue in expired child sex abuse cases.
But as similar reform measures pass in other states, it’s likely that the reform will eventually become law in Pennsylvania, as well, Hamilton said.
“This is a civil rights movement for children,” she said. “It takes time.”
As aggravating as the delay is for victims of priest abuse, the state’s inaction on opening a civil window is even worse for all child sex victims who were abused by people outside the church, Hamilton said. She pointed to victims of Johnnie Bartos, a Johnstown pediatrician convicted of molesting child patients.
There is no compensation fund for those victims as they wait for the state to reform the statute of limitations, Hamilton said.