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New Jersey bishops finalizing plans to compensate sex abuse victims

Newark, N.J., Dec 15, 2018 / 05:42 pm (CNA).- In the wake of sex abuse allegations against a former cardinal, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey have announced the creation of a fund to compensate victims of clergy sex abuse, while details of similar funds in Pennsylvania are also being finalized.

The New Jersey program aims to compensate “eligible victims of child sexual abuse including those whose financial claims are legally barred by New Jersey's statute of limitations,” the New Jersey Catholic Conference said in a Dec. 14 statement. “This program follows the many initiatives adopted by the Catholic dioceses in New Jersey since 2002 to implement safeguards and procedures to provide safe environments for children and to provide assistance to victims.”

Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille Biros will design, implement and administer the statewide compensation program. Feinberg is an attorney and mediator who headed the September 11 victims’ compensation fund.
 
He and Biros have adminsitered sex abuse victims compensation programs for many diocese in New York and Pennsylvania. New Jersey’s bishops described them as “respected internationally.”

The program will accept submissions of individual claims of sexual abuse of a minor, evaluate the claims, and settle them. It will be independent of any participating diocese. Program administrators will have “complete autonomy” to determine if a claim is eligible and what amount to compensate a victim.

The Catholic Church in New Jersey has already paid out $50 million in settlements to abuse victims, mostly involving claims where lawsuits are barred by the statute of limitations on civil actions, the Catholic bishops of the state said.

“This will give victims a formal voice and allow them to be heard by an independent panel,” the Newark archdiocese said last month in an announcement that the program was under development.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said last month that “the program also will assure that victims who have not received any financial compensation will be paid, regardless of whether their claims meet the time requirements of the statute of limitations.”

Tobin added that New Jersey’s dioceses will “undertake a complete review of their files” and release the names of all priests and deacons who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. The list is expected to be released in early 2019.

In September, New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the creation of a task force in the state to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse and cover up.

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop emeritus of Washington, headed the Newark archdiocese from 1986 to 2000 and was the first Bishop of Metuchen when it was founded in 1982.

In the early 2000s, the Archdiocese of Newark and the dioceses of Trenton and Metuchen paid settlements to men who alleged they were abused by McCarrick when they were adults studying in seminary. These settlements were not public knowledge until the summer of 2018, after two men came forward to say that they had been abused by McCarrick as minors.

Cardinal Tobin told journalist Mike Kelly he had heard rumors of McCarrick’s sexual misconduct soon after he became Archbishop of Newark in 2017, but did not investigate because he found the rumors unbelievable.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, a grand jury report published in August claimed to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests. It presented a devastating portrait of efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure, or cover up allegations, either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.

The accusations concerned incidents that are often decades old. Most of the priests accused of abuse have died.

Seven of the eight Roman Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania have said they will create compensation funds for victims of clergy sex abuse. The Altoona-Johnstown diocese started its own victim assistance program in 1999.

Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Pa. announced details of a victims’ compensation fund on Friday, the Erie Times-News reports. That fund will also be administered by Feinberg and Biros, who are administering other funds in Pennsylvania.

“It is my sincere hope that the establishment of the Diocese of Erie’s Survivors’ Reparation Fund will provide some measure of justice, closure and validation for the terrible acts that victims endured,” Persico said. “Although money will never fully heal the deep wounds felt by survivors, this fund is a crucial step in the diocese’s ongoing reconciliation and reform efforts.”

Victims could have access to the fund by mid-February, with a claims period open for six months.

Known victims of abuse, whether by diocesan clergy, lay employees or diocesan volunteers, will be notified by letter.

Those victims not known to the diocese may submit a form on the Diocese of Erie’s website. Those who claim abuse will be asked to submit documents backing their claim.

Both minors and vulnerable adults will be eligible for the first phase of compensation, but not those who were victimized by members of religious orders.

The fund administrators will determine compensation based on many factors including the severity and duration of abuse; the age of the victim at the time of abuse; whether the diocese failed to act on prior knowledge of the accused abuser; when the abuse was reported; and the credibility of the claim.

Victims who accept compensation will be required to waive any rights they have against the diocese related to sex abuse allegations.

Persico emphasized that victims who accept compensation will not be obligated to refrain from public comment or public disclosure of abuse.

The estates of deceased victims and victims of non-diocesan personnel could be compensated in a second phase, depending on future contributions from insurance companies and religious orders.

Persico has said he favors such a compensation fund rather than a two-year window for victims of past sexual abuse to sue in cases where the statute of limitations for civil action has expired. Such legislation is stalled in the Pennsylvania legislature.

The diocese has argued that even if the statutes of limitations is lifted, the first claimants could receive significant judgments that leave little compensation for the majority of other victims.

Persico has backed an end to the abolition of statute of limitation for criminal penalties for sex abuse.

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