Westmoreland County trust sought to pay Pittsburgh diocese’s sex abuse claims
An Allegheny County judge will decide whether a trust bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church to help needy boys can be used by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to help pay victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office opposes using the 120-year-old Toner Trust — now valued at more than $8 million — for the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.
“This distribution would be inconsistent with the charitable intent of James L. Toner,” Senior Deputy Attorney General Gene Herne wrote in a brief opposing use of the trust to settle sexual abuse claims.
Diocesan spokeswoman Ellen Mady declined comment. The diocese is awaiting a hearing to be set in the matter, she said.
Shapiro’s office didn’t return requests for further comment.
James L. Toner of Derry Township left his farm and other property to the church to establish an industrial school for boys. Toner served three terms in the state House in the 1870s, representing Westmoreland County. He died Jan. 6, 1899.
Toner’s bequest was initially made to the Benedictine Society of the Catholic Church of America, but that organization denied it. If that was the case, Toner’s will called for the Pittsburgh Diocese to receive the bequest, and the diocese accepted it. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg wasn’t created out of the Pittsburgh diocese until 1951.
In the decades since, the trust has funded other diocesan initiatives that help youth in the diocese including Auberle, a nonprofit based in McKeesport; McGuire Memorial, a center for disabled youth in Beaver County; Holy Family Institute in Emsworth and other organizations.
In April, attorneys from the Pittsburgh firm Clark Hill filed a request in Orphans’ Court on behalf of the diocese to use the Toner Trust to help fund the compensation program. The case has been making its way through Allegheny County Orphans’ Court and is before Judge Lawrence O’Toole.
Courts have a long history of “liberally construing” the meaning of trusts to allow for uses “in the spirit of the language” that formed them, the diocesan attorneys contend. Allowing Toner Trust money to be awarded to victims of clergy sexual abuse would benefit those the trust was formed to help, the diocesan attorneys said.
Attorneys for Clark Hill didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Using the money in such a way goes against Toner’s intent when he made his will, Herne argued, saying that the original intent was for the training and education of needy boys.
“This trust was established to help better the lives of children, and its purposes have no correlation to the attempted use of paying victims of alleged clergy sexual abuse,” Herne wrote in a brief opposing use of the trust to settle sexual abuse claims.
It’s an attempt by the diocese to use charitable cash to pay bills and legal obligations, Herne wrote.
Using the trust money in this fashion “serves a narrow, finite, specific class of people that were harmed from a specific cause or instance,” Herne wrote.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called the attempt to use the funds in the trusts for settlements a “depressing look at how church officials act when their money is on the line,” the group said in a statement.
“We believe that, when wrongdoers experience no real sacrifices for wrongdoing, they have no incentive to do right in the future. So, we oppose any effort by church officials to rob a fund for needy kids to help victims of church officials’ criminal behavior,” the SNAP statement said.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .