Greensburg, Pittsburgh Catholic dioceses to launch compensation fund for clergy abuse victims
In an apparent move to counter calls for new legislation to permit victims of clergy child sexual abuse to sue the Catholic church outside statute of limitations, diocesan officials across Pennsylvania announced they will create accounts to pay victims.
One by one, church leaders from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on Thursday said each would establish its own victims’ compensation fund to be underwritten by resources of that diocese or archdiocese.
The announcements come in the wake of a bitter fight in the Pennsylvania General Assembly over legislation that would create a two-year window for adults who were sexually abused as children and can no longer seek recourse in the courts to file suit against their abusers and those involved in covering up such acts. The law is among four recommendations from a statewide grand jurythat found rampant clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups by church officials in dioceses across Pennsylvania over the last seven decades.
This fall, the state House approved the bill by a wide margin. But it stalled in the state Senate, where President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, proposed victims compensation funds as an alternative plan. The alternative, supported by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the insurance industry, would operate outside of the courts.
In a meeting Thursday with the Tribune-Review editorial board, Bishop Edward C. Malesic announced the Greensburg Diocese’s plans for such a fund. His announcement came around the same time as ones from the archdiocese of Philadelphia and the dioceses of Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie and Allentown.
Malesic said there is no overarching playbook the Catholic Church has tapped on how to deal with clergy sex abuse allegations.
“We’re not that organized,” Malesic said, referring to the joke about a man who said he was Catholic because he opposed organized religion.
The Greensburg Diocese is in talks with attorney Kenneth Feinberg, whose law firm will administer the fund. Feinberg previously administered the 9/11 victims fund and the fund Penn State established to compensate young men who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky.
Details of the Catholic dioceses’ compensation funds have not been finalized, including the amounts they will contain and the application process for victims.
“I think this is the right thing to do,” Malesic said. “I want victims to know we are sorry for them, that we pray for them. The message is our victims are important to us. I want them to heal. I want them to feel as though we believe them.”
Asked if he continues to stand with the Catholic Conference in opposition to a window of opportunity law, Malesic said he is concerned such a law could cripple the diocese financially.
“I’m for helping victims as best possible. I’m against bankrupting the Diocese of Greensburg,” he said.
Mark Seiberling, a lawyer with Philadelphia-based firm Kleinbard, accompanied Malesic on Thursday. He said the diocese is prepared to dedicate significant money to the fund. He said it would afford victims an opportunity to avoid prolonged legal battles.
It would also most likely require them to agree to refrain from further efforts to collect damages.
Although he declined to put a number on the fund, Seiberling said it will be substantial.
“It’s going to be a big number. It’s going to be painful for the diocese. It has to be painful for the diocese. Belts will have to be tightened… Properties may have to be sold,” Seiberling said.
Church officials across the state said self-insurance, investment proceeds, surplus cash and insurance are among the resources that may be tapped to underwrite such costs.
Bishop David Zubik said the Pittsburgh Diocese’s compensation fund will be the second it has launched since 2007.
He commended his fellow bishops for efforts to launch similar funds and said he hopes such efforts will aid in victims’ healing.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, an abuse survivor who worked to promote window of opportunity legislation, applauded the dioceses for setting aside resources to compensate victims.
“For me, as a Catholic, it is about time the church tries to make amends,” Rozzi said. “It’s a good idea because not everyone wants to go through a window. But we need a fund and a window, and we’re going to push for that window until we get it.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro also called for continuing efforts to pass a window of opportunity law.
“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. “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 Greensburg, Malesic said the church needs to reject to clericalism—the practice of putting priests and bishops on a pedestal—and hold bishops accountable for their actions.
He said the actions detailed in the grand jury report are sickening.
“It is surprising to me that men who are disciplined in prayer and disciplines in so many other ways have fallen into this particular evil,” he said.
Malesic, who has been attending listening sessions in churches across Greensburg’s four-county diocese, said he’s faced tough questions from parishioners who are angry at how the Church’s leaders handled such issues in the past.
“The question that hits me probably the hardest is ‘How can we believe you now?’ That’s a hard one,” he said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.