Pennsylvania dioceses consider victims’ compensation fund

Marc Levy
Associated Press
File - In this Friday, Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend Kevin Rhoades speaks about the Grand Jury Report on sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, In Fort Wayne, Ind. Rhodes, the former Pennsylvania Roman Catholic bishop who now serves in Indiana has denied an allegation of misconduct. The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend told in a statement Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, that former Harrisburg bishop Rhoades "adamantly denies" the accusation and that he "did nothing wrong." (Michelle Davies/The Journal-Gazette via AP, File)

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses said late Friday they are willing to set up a victims’ compensation fund as they face the prospect that state lawmakers will give victims of decades-old child sexual abuse another chance to sue the church.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference issued the statement for the dioceses saying they were discussing a possible fund. They warned that if a window opens for litigation of old cases, it could force the dioceses into bankruptcy and prevent them from helping victims or performing social services.

No diocese that has sought bankruptcy protection has ever stopped operating. Victims’ lawyers say seeking bankruptcy is a strategic way to limit liability in lawsuits.

A nearly 900-page state grand jury report released Aug. 14 said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials, including the man who is now archbishop of Washington, D.C., of systematically covering up complaints.

The dioceses’ announcement comes ahead of a Monday rally at the Capitol to press lawmakers to approve a grand jury’s recommendations, including creating a two-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits after the statute of limitations on their cases runs out.

“We believe such a program will expedite the process for survivors to present their cases to experienced, compassionate experts who will determine an outcome for each case in a swift, efficient manner. In doing so, the panel will provide a resolution to survivors and allow them to avoid difficult and prolonged litigation,” the bishops wrote in the statement.

Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the conference, said that the fund is just an idea at this point, details are still being discussed and no amount of money had been determined. She said the bishops were still talking about what kinds of compensation might be offered.

More:York DA asking for information about possible priest abuse

More:Report cites cases of 2 York-area priests as examples of 'wholesale institutional failure'

More:Grand jury report details abuse allegations against 19 York County priests

More:Report: Police, DA's office, received evidence of York City priest abuse

Both civil lawsuits and victims’ compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memories of their abuse as children, although there are crucial differences.

Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of child sexual abuse complaints and how they handled them. Plaintiffs also can extract court-approved agreements from dioceses to add procedures or training to better protect children going forward. Some of the money goes to lawyers’ fees, and the church’s defenders say that motivates civil lawyers.

A victim’s compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny but delivers a faster payout to victims.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro are expected to attend the rally Monday, the first day that state lawmakers are back in voting session since the grand jury produced a report that has shaken the church, spawned investigations in other states and drawn a strong response from Pope Francis.

The state House of Representatives appears poised to pass a two-year window provision. Similar action has happened over the years in several other states, including California, Minnesota and Delaware, according to the Philadelphia-based research organization Child USA. But the Catholic Church and insurers have opposed similar measures in the past, and its fate in the Senate is uncertain.

The Senate in 2016 blocked similar legislation passed by the House.