For some aging victims of abuse, this may be a last chance to extract an apology and some financial support from the Church. As one man, who said he’d been abused on Long Island, told the press in New York last year, “It is a plan that for some people may be, no pun intended, a godsend. If someone is not disposed to go to court, if someone is in a situation where they don’t have the time for a law to be changed, this is definitely the way to go.”
But payout programs like these have been tried before, both in the U.S. and in other countries like Australia, and the experiences of those who participated in them suggest their drawbacks may outweigh their benefits. Several survivors, advocates, lawyers, and academics I spoke with said they believe the programs actually serve a dark purpose: to bring forward abuse victims who might later be able to sue the Church if the statute of limitations is amended, and to buy them off cheaply now, all while keeping damning records under wraps.
“The Catholic Church is trying to put a Band-Aid on a situation that requires major surgery,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of clergy-abuse victims and who was depicted in the movie Spotlight. He told me that with more U.S. attorneys general opening state-wide investigations into abuse, more victim funds are “without a doubt” going to crop up, which increases the importance of understanding their drawbacks. “The Church is implementing the compensation programs so they can try to convince the legislatures that statute-of-limitations laws should not be amended, because the Church is already taking care of the problem. It’s a deceptive move.” The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops, declined to comment.
U.S. Church-reparation schemes, such as those set up in New York in 2016 and 2017, typically involve a few drawbacks from the participant’s perspective, Garabedian explained. First, they stipulate that if survivors accept a payout now, they waive the right to sue the Church later. Second, the payout they receive is often far smaller than what they might get if they sued in court. Third, the Church doesn’t have to reveal its records to the survivors or to the public. Fourth, it’s the diocese or archdiocese that selects and pays the administrators of the program.
Kevin Stocker, a churchgoing Catholic and an attorney who has represented six victims as they went through compensation programs in western New York, told me that he has personally observed all these drawbacks. He described writing a letter to a diocese that was offering such a program, in which he argued that the program was similar to an arbitration—a binding form of dispute resolution that takes place outside the courts—and that in an arbitration, documents can be subpoenaed. He said he should be able to subpoena any documents that could show the Church had prior knowledge that his client’s alleged abuser was prone to such misconduct. “When I asked for the documents, I was basically told, ‘You’re not getting anything,’” he said.