Erie Catholic diocese will open files to priest sex abuse victims
The Catholic Diocese of Erie, which recently settled a $2 million clergy sexual abuse complaint, is making “relevant” internal files available to abuse survivors for the asking, church officials said.
The policy has been in effect since the diocese launched its compensation fund for abuse survivors in February, said Pittsburgh attorney Mark Rush of K&L Gates, legal counsel to the Erie diocese.
“They can simply request to review the file, and it will be made available to them. Bishop (Lawrence) Persico has been fully on board in asking us to be as transparent as possible,” Rush said.
Survivors need not be participating in the diocese compensation fund program to access files regarding their abuser, he said. Those files will include any other complaints against the alleged abuser, but will stop short of identifying victims.
“We want to be mindful of the privacy rights of other victims,” Rush said.
The so-called secret archives, church personnel files that detail abuse allegations and the church’s response to them, were kept under lock and key for decades. Subpoenas that compelled Pennsylvania bishops to release the files were a critical factor in building the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation that ultimately detailed allegations of abuse against 301 priests spanning seven decades.
Such files can be key to launching discovery in civil lawsuits, something church leaders across the state hoped to head off when they announced the launch of compensation funds for abuse survivors last fall. Those who accept compensation must sign away their right to sue.
Richard Serbin, an Altoona lawyer who has represented survivors in legal actions against every Pennsylvania diocese, said he was surprised when he received a letter notifying him of the offer to access the Erie diocese records.
“They are the first diocese to my knowledge to do this,” Serbin said. “I give Bishop Persico credit for taking this step to be more transparent.”
At least one person skeptical of the offer is Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston lawyer who settled the $2 million abuse case with the Erie diocese in late March and represented multiple survivors in the 2002 Boston Archdiocese abuse scandal.
“History has proven the Catholic Church cannot practice transparency and appropriate self-policing, so one has to be skeptical of their completeness with regard to the release of files. What the dioceses should be doing is releasing all files, including those of the priests and those complicit in covering up for them. Otherwise, there is serious concern files will be sanitized,” Garabedian said.
To date, Rush said there have been several file requests from lawyers.
“But we wanted to make it clear that any survivor can request a file,” Rush said.
Requests for relevant files should be made directly to the diocese’s law firm at [email protected]
The Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, said he believes the offer is unique to Erie.
The Greensburg diocese referred questions to the church’s compensation fund mediation firm, Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc., which did not respond to a request for comment.
Six Pennsylvania dioceses and the Philadelphia archdiocese have established independent compensation funds, each with differing deadlines and procedures for applications and payouts.
Each of them has said it will provide an attorney for applicants at no cost. Rush, however, said the Erie diocese reached out to recruit a number of law firms, independent of the church and its mediator, that will represent survivors at no cost.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .