SAN DIEGO — “No amount of money can make up for the evil done to victims of priestly sex abuse, but we can and must finish the job of compensating victim-survivors for the wrong that was done to them whenever it took place.”
That’s how Bishop Robert W. McElroy announced that the San Diego Diocese had joined five other California (arch)dioceses to create an Independent Victim Compensation Program to provide monetary compensation for victim-survivors of priestly sexual abuse.
The program will be open to all victims who were abused as minors by a priest of the San Diego Diocese, regardless of how long ago the abuse may have taken place. There is no “statute of limitations” that would prevent any victim from filing a claim with the program.
The program will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros of the Feinberg Law Firm in Washington, D.C. Feinberg and Biros have developed a national reputation for fair and compassionate handling of claims arising out of the 9/11 tragedy in New York and the BP petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The firm is currently handling claims of victims of clergy abuse through programs in the Archdioceses of New York and Philadelphia and dioceses in Pennsylvania, New York and
Colorado. Through their efforts, more than 1,200 victim-survivors have received compensation in New York, alone.
According to Biros, the California program will begin accepting applications in late summer or early fall. When operating, Biros says most participants who qualify will receive an offer of compensation within 90 days.
Participation in the program by victim-survivors is voluntary. There is no application fee. If an applicant goes through the process and receives a compensation offer from the firm, they are free to accept it or reject it. They give up none of their legal rights. If they reject it, they are free to pursue whatever legal remedies are open to them. If they accept it, they will receive prompt payment, validation of the pain and suffering they experienced and a final settlement of their claim.
For the dioceses, the program will be a way “to offer a measure of healing to victims,” as one participating bishop said, “a continuation in the journey of reparation and repentance in the clergy sexual abuse crisis.”
Victim compensation will be paid for by diocesan funds and insurance and not by parish resources or donations to the Annual Catholic Appeal, Bishop McElroy said in his announcement. Any individual participating in the program will be required by Administrators to report it to the appropriate law enforcement agency if they have not already done so. The program is the latest initiative launched in the last year by Bishop McElroy at the San Diego Diocese in response to investigations on the East Coast that documented decades of sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy.
On May 14, the dioceses of San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Fresno and Sacramento and the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced that they had established the independent compensation program. Together, they serve 80 percent of the Catholics in the state.
All aspects of the program, including the amount that is offered to settle a claim, will be controlled exclusively by Feinberg and Biros, its Administrators. The application form will give victim-survivors the option of being contacted by the diocese at the conclusion of the process, otherwise, all contact will be through the firm.
How the program will work
The bishops in California wanted to make the compensation program availablet o as many victims as possible.
Anyone who was sexually abused by a priest at a participating diocese when they were a minor will be able to submit a claim regardless of when the abuse occurred. Undocumented immigrants will be able to submit claims since the program will not require proof of legal immigration status. All aspects of the program will be in English and Spanish.
In most cases, participants in the program who qualify will receive an offer of compensation from the Administrators within 90 days.
Participants do not need to hire an attorney to submit a claim nor do they have to pay any fees. However, those who are offered a settlement will be required to review it with an attorney of their choosing before accepting. This is to make sure they fully understand their rights. The Administrators will arrange for an independent law firm to assist participants with this final review that has no ties to either the diocese or the Feinberg law firm.
And although all information in the claim process will be kept confidential by the firm and the participating dioceses, victims are free to speak about any aspect of their claim at any time to anyone.
Prevention and support
In announcing the program, the bishops pledged to continue to minister to victim survivors and to provide them with support.
This program is “continuation in the journey of reparation and repentance in the clergy sexual abuse crisis,” San Bernardino Bishop Gerald Barnes said. “I know that financial compensation cannot erase the trauma of abuse. At the same time, several of my brother bishops in California have come to believe that this program can offer a measure of healing to victims.”
The compensation program builds on the many steps the dioceses have taken to minister to victims since the crisis came to light in California and around the country in 2002. Starting that year, the dioceses began to implement a rigorous Safe Environment Program to prevent abuse that includes criminal background checks of anyone, including volunteers, who may come in contact with children at schools and parishes; teaching children at all levels what is and is not appropriate behavior by an adult; training staff members to detect and report abuse; and the creation of an Independent Review Board to investigate all reports of abuse at the diocese.
The program contributed to a dramatic drop in reports of abuse nationwide. A finding that a priest has sexually abused a minor automatically means that that priest will be removed from public ministry permanently.
“I ask you to keep the victim/survivors of priestly sex abuse in your prayers,” Bishop McElroy said, “that they may feel the healing touch of a faithful and loving God.”