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Broken Faith: Inside the Catholic Church’s plan to quietly pay survivors of sexual abuse

The compensation programs are spreading just as states are trying to make it easier for child sex abuse victims to sue.

by Carter Sherman and Joe Hill
Mar 26 2019, 2:30pm

When Paul Barr was 16 years old, a priest asked him to the rectory of the Sacred Heart church in Niagara Falls, New York. Barr remembers that the priest handed him a beer, suggested that he lie down, and then touched his groin.

Four decades later, Barr learned that his story was worth $45,000.

In January, Barr got the offer from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, as he sat at his desk at his law firm a few blocks from the Canadian border. Barr was prepared for disappointment; he was accustomed to the Catholic Church letting him down. But he still felt betrayed by the offer.

“I was just full of resentment. But I don’t want to let that resentment eat me alive,” the 54-year-old personal injury attorney said. So, after the call, he got back to work.

Barr said he didn’t really care about being compensated for the alleged abuse. Instead, he wanted answers, accountability, maybe an apology. The alleged assault had followed him throughout his life. In high school, Barr got into trouble and struggled to graduate. Later, while working as a firefighter, he worried that the others would leave him behind in a burning building.

“It taught me not to trust,” he said. “I couldn’t look up to anybody. I always expected that I could be taken advantage of. If the priest could do that, after using his position and powerfully manipulating me, then anybody could.”

He couldn’t shake that feeling. Then, in 2018, Barr heard that the Buffalo diocese was launching a new program to compensate survivors of clergy sex abuse, one of several similar initiatives that dioceses across New York have turned to as their legal problems grew.

For survivors, many of whom have spent decades coping with trauma, the programs are a way to finally be acknowledged by the Church that wronged them. The claims are not subject to statute of limitations laws — which prevent many survivors from suing. The programs do not require the kind of evidence needed in a courtroom, and are overseen by independent administrators hired by the diocese. The administrators decide how much money, if any, a survivor should receive as compensation.

But the programs amount to a kind of private justice: At a time when states are considering rewriting statute of limitations laws, sexual assault survivors must sign away their right to ever sue the Church. There is generally no requirement that the Church admit guilt and there’s no guarantee that evidence of sexual abuse will ever be made public, or that anyone in the Church will be held accountable after the settlements.

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Paul Barr in his Niagara Falls office. (Photo by Joe Hill)

The compensation programs are now spreading outside New York, at a time that’s convenient for the Church. As the reckoning of both #MeToo and clergy abuse scandals widen, the prospect of opening up statute of limitations laws could be financially catastrophic for the Church and further expose the scope of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“They are trying to siphon off survivors who might otherwise be eager for statute of limitations reform and might actually file claims,” said Terry McKiernan, the co-director of the watchdog group Bishop Accountability.

Nearly every diocese in New York has now set up a similar compensation program. In November 2018, three months after hundreds of priests alleged to have sexually abused children in Pennsylvania's Catholic churches were named, every Roman Catholic diocese but one in the state announced they planned to start compensation programs. So did every diocese in New Jersey.

J. Michael Reck, an attorney whose office has represented dozens of survivors in the compensation programs, believes the compensation programs were crafted to hide records from the public. For the Church, true bankruptcy isn’t running out of money, but running out of believers, he said.

“They are trying to siphon off survivors who might otherwise be eager for statute of limitations reform and might actually file claims.”

“I think the release of records is significantly more damaging to the Church in the long-term,” Reck said. “The more important pressure is on their reputation, and on their presence and relevance in the world — which, obviously, if you can see that the moral authority is acting in an immoral manner, that undermines their entire institution.”

All this leaves survivors, many of whom still have faith in the Church, weighing questions that are impossible to answer: Will these compensation programs allow them to move on? Or are they another strategy to help the Church save money and keep its secrets buried?

To Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a survivor of clergy sex abuse, the programs can offer some hope.

“This might be a way for [survivors] to go in quietly, do what they have to do, and hopefully move on with their life,” he said. “Now, we know it’s not going to ever heal the victims. It’s going to help them move forward. But for some of these victims, it’s going to be a lifelong struggle to just live.”

Still, Rozzi wants survivors looking for reparations to have more options. He has repeatedly introduced a bill to open up what’s called a “lookback window”: a one-time period when anyone, regardless of how long ago they were abused, can sue their attacker or the institutions they represented.

It’s a prospect Catholic dioceses have lobbied against for years. But despite the Church’s longtime opposition, the New York state Legislature voted in January to open a one-year lookback window this summer.

“It was clear the windows were going to be passed, and so [the Church] created these compensation funds,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of the anti–child sex abuse group Child USA. “They’re trying to settle as many cases as they can, so they’re not in the line of fire when the window opens.”

Barr turned down the $45,000. Unlike many survivors of child sex abuse whose trauma kept them from forging successful careers, he didn’t need the money.

Instead, Barr wants to sue the Church.

“They ignored me and let that monster abuse other people, other young children. That makes me the most angry.”

He’s unafraid to tell his story; he speaks to reporters about the abuse with the door of his squat, cluttered office open and his gravelly voice loud.

“I want to go through the discovery process,” Barr said. “I want to be able to say, out loud, in front of a judge, to representatives of the diocese, that I reported my abuse back in the ’80s. He went on to abuse another person, which infuriates me — that they ignored me and let that monster abuse other people, other young children. That makes me the most angry.”

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In the 17 years since the Boston Globe revealed that clergy abuse was both rampant and systematically concealed by top Catholic officials, dioceses across the country have taken different approaches to the crisis — what McKiernan calls “parallel laboratories.” In late 2016, the Archdiocese of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan set out to create a new model: the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP).

Joseph Zwilling, director of the office of communications at the Archdiocese of New York, said the IRCP is a response to Pope Francis’ call for each diocese to reach out to people in a new way. “Cardinal Dolan, in praying about that and thinking about that, thought that it would be most appropriate to reach out to those who have been harmed by abuse by a priest or deacon of the Archdiocese, to reach out in a tangible way to express our contrition; to make an act of reparation.”

Dolan enlisted the help of Ken Feinberg’s law firm, which handled compensation programs for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the BP oil spill. The firm has now administered the IRCPs in New York City and three upstate dioceses. In total, they’ve received some 1,300 claims from the New York programs, according to Camille Biros, the firm’s business manager. The compensation programs are generally set up for a finite period of time; five out of seven in the state are no longer accepting new claims.

Feinberg’s firm is also handling all of New Jersey’s compensation program, a statewide initiative that will likely launch in the summer, and five of the Pennsylvania dioceses’ programs. As of last week, Feinberg’s office had already received 212 claims from Pennsylvania, Biros said.

“Just when you think you’ve read the worst of it, you’re always surprised by how bad it really was.”

“It’s a program that is designed to help people,” Zwilling said. “I think it has achieved that goal.” Zwilling said he’s not surprised that other dioceses have adopted the model.

Luis Torres submitted one of those claims in New York state. For years, the Brooklyn-raised lawyer was sure he’d moved past the effects of being sexually abused by his local priest. He’d even spent more than a decade formulating the Diocese of Brooklyn’s sex abuse policies as a member of its review board.

But about six years ago, Torres sank into a depression. He started finding himself sitting on a couch, rereading a paragraph over and over again without taking in a word. He stopped returning his friends’ calls and emails; sometimes, he sat in his car, alone, missing dinners with his family.

“I feel like I died. I feel like all of the sudden, this thing that had been hiding in the background, that I had been running away from, finally caught up with me,” Torres explained. “I couldn’t think coherently. I didn’t trust anyone. I didn’t believe in anything.”

But Torres still thought there was good within the Catholic Church, and he didn’t want to be pitted against it. So, in late 2017, Torres sat in his garage and wrote out a claim to the Brooklyn diocese’s compensation program.

“I sat there for about eight hours, maybe more, and just looked into the abyss,” Torres said, with a hollow laugh. He felt like he was reliving everything. He was around 11 years old when he first met James Lara, the priest Torres says sexually abused him. The Church removed Lara from ministry for sexually abusing children in 1992, though the Brooklyn diocese didn’t publicly reveal that fact until 2017, when it added his name to a list of priests credibly accused of child abuse.

Torres has publicly identified himself as a survivor of abuse in the past, but has not previously said he was among Lara’s victims. A spokesperson for the Brooklyn diocese said they would be unable to respond to Torres’ allegation before the publication of this report. VICE News called multiple phone numbers associated with Lara, but did not receive a reply to a request for comment.

A man locking up the office's doors.
The Terence Cardinal Cooke Catholic Center, the headquarters of the Archdiocese of New York. (Photo by Joe Hill)

As one of the IRCPs’ administrators, Biros reads every claim. She’s also personally met with several hundred survivors. Sometimes, men who were abused decades ago will suddenly start sobbing in front of her.

“Just when you think you’ve read the worst of it, you’re always surprised by how bad it really was,” Biros said.

Some of the claims accepted in the program could be tough to corroborate in a court of law; the average age childhood sex abuse survivors come forward is 52, according to Child USA. Biros always asks survivors to submit a complaint to law enforcement, if they haven’t already done so, and for any documents that can back up their claims.

Ultimately, Biros uses her own judgment to decide whether a case warrants compensation. The whole process often takes less than four months, she said — far less time than a lawsuit, which is also likely to be expensive and grueling.

“If you can wait it out and you have significant support, you’re likely to monetarily do better in a court of law,” Biros said. “But that’s an individual decision that each claimant has to make.”

So far, of the 1,334 New York claims Biros and her team have received, 68 have been found “ineligible,” she said.

While Biros declined to share the range of compensation offered in the programs, the maximum award she’s given is $500,000. The Buffalo diocese, whose Biros is not administering, has offered survivors between $10,000 and $360,000 to settle their claims, the Buffalo News found. Dioceses don’t have a say in determining the awards.

Torres declined to say how much he received, but he says no amount of money can make him whole again. He took the settlement because he needed to move on. Torres felt the Brooklyn diocese had listened to him, and that its officials were sorry.

Since going through the program, he’s been able to focus on healing, his faith, and trying to help other survivors. “Prior to that, the feeling that there was a lack of justice — and feeling that there was a lack of dealing with the legal issues — always seemed like an obstacle.”

As a result of the programs, some accusations against priests have been investigated, substantiated, and revealed publicly. But the offers from the compensation programs at least in most cases do not include an admission of guilt, and in at least one case did not require a clergy member to be permanently removed from ministry. In December, the New York Times reported that Rev. Daniel Timone was still allowed to say Mass, even though the Archdiocese had settled two sex abuse allegations against Timone through its IRCP in 2017. The Archdiocese had separately investigated Timone after allegations emerged against him back in 2002, and at the time found the claims unsubstantiated.

Timone was suspended only after the Times report.

The Church’s continual refusal to make records public, particularly those that could implicate its more senior officials, is one of the enduring hallmarks of the Catholic sex abuse crisis, according to Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Lennon believes the compensation programs can help survivors, but they do maintain that tradition of secrecy. In the programs, Church officials cannot be forced to testify, and lawyers cannot make them release records.

“There is no public disclosure. The bishops continue to hide predators and cover up their complicity in the rape and sexual abuse of the vulnerable,” he wrote in an email.

“There is no accountability under the rule of law.”

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As a little girl, Christina Grana loved to pray. She still does. Like both Torres and Barr, Grana is still Catholic.

“The Catholic Church is the Stockholm Syndrome. I have always been in love with the Catholic Church.”

She carried a rosary and wore a golden crucifix around her neck the January day she recounted her story to a retired New York Supreme Court justice as part of the Diocese of Rochester’s compensation program.

Forty-two years ago, Grana says, a nun at her Catholic school forcibly penetrated Grana’s vagina with her finger to punish her for wearing a too-short skirt. Grana said the nun shouted, “You’re inviting rape.”

But Grana said the assault complicated her feelings about prayer. “It gives me hope, the belief that there is a God and that there is love and that they do love me. But they’ve proved in so many other ways that they don’t.”

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Christina Grana at her childhood home.

The Catholic Church has spent years scrambling to convince its shrinking American following that it’s come clean about the depth of the abuse, rid itself of predators, and atoned. But the clergy’s stock-in-trade is moral authority, and the sex abuse crisis has clearly corroded their credibility. More than 60 percent of Americans now think even the liberal-leaning Pope Francis is doing a “fair” or “poor” job handling sex abuse, according to the Pew Research Center.

And over the past year, the long-simmering scandal once again exploded into a full-fledged crisis.

In June 2018, the Archdiocese of New York announced that a man had approached its compensation program and alleged that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, had sexually abused him in the ’70s, when the alleged victim was 16.

The Archdiocese found that allegation “credible and substantiated,” and turned it over to the Vatican, which eventually expelled McCarrick from the priesthood; he’s the first cardinal to be defrocked over sex abuse. (McCarrick has said he is innocent.) Then, in August 2018, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released the results of its two-year investigation into sex abuse within six of the state’s eight dioceses. It found that more than 1,000 children had been abused over more than seven decades.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades,” the grand jury wrote in its nearly 900-page report. But the statute of limitations had expired in almost every case: While the grand jury received credible allegations involving more than 300 priests, just two were changed.

Paul Barr was enraged by the report, particularly because the priest who allegedly abused him, Michael Freeman, was named in it. Freeman, who died in 2010, admitted to what the report called "sexually violating children in at least five of his six ministry assignments." The Buffalo diocese knew of Freeman’s “criminal activity” as early as 1981, but let him serve in active ministry until 1989 and helped him financially until 1999, according to the report.

“My reaction is, ‘Son of a bitch! I’m the guy,’” Barr recalled thinking. “I am the guy who reported that priest. I did. Maybe someone else did too, but I know that I reported that priest. And I’m just like — God dammit.”

After Freeman allegedly tried to give what he told Barr was a “medical exam,” Barr said he immediately left the rectory and went home. His mother instructed him to keep quiet, and he obeyed. At first.

Barr said he told two Buffalo diocese officials what happened a year later. When he was 20, he told another. Those people did nothing, according to Barr. He also mentioned an incident with a priest to the diocese in the 1990s, when he filed papers to annul his marriage, but the diocese never followed up, he said.

In March 2018, the Diocese of Buffalo included Freeman on a list of priests with “substantiated claims of sexual abuse of a minor.” When asked about Barr’s allegations, a spokesperson for the Buffalo diocese wrote in an email: “The diocese removed Fr. Freeman from ministry in 1989.”

The abuse allegations against the former archbishop of Washington and the Pennsylvania grand jury report landed on a nation already upended by #MeToo revelations about the ubiquity of sexual violence. The Catholic Church was plunged into unprecedented legal jeopardy.

Fourteen state attorneys general soon announced that they would investigate their states’ dioceses, while the Department of Justice subpoenaed Pennsylvania dioceses for their records of abuse. (Among other things, the feds were reportedly looking for violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, or RICO, which is typically used to go after organized crime syndicates.) The Illinois attorney general soon found that Catholic dioceses in the state kept secret the names of more than 500 clergy members accused of sexual abuse. The West Virginia attorney general sued the state’s only Roman Catholic diocese on Tuesday.

In late February, Pope Francis held a meeting of bishops from around the world to discuss ways to address the crisis. While he did promise to “combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” Francis did not say that abusive priests would be automatically expelled, as many advocates had hoped.

“I think the Church is always going to try to look transparent whilst revealing as little as possible,” said McKiernan, co-director of Bishop Accountability.

But Barr said he stayed in the Church because he believes Francis is taking it in the right direction.

“But they don’t make it easy,” he said, adding, “I look higher than the individuals that are screwing things up, and I find solace in the teachings of the Church.”

“They're not the Church. We're the Church,” Torres said.

Grana, for her part, said she was so mired in fear and shame after her alleged abuse that she never told anyone until shortly before she decided to join the compensation program. Her mother remembers her hacking off her honey-colored hair; Grana said she no longer wanted to look appealing. She began sleepwalking.

“My whole personality changed,” Grana said. She lost interest in socializing and withdrew into books. “She basically crushed my soul.”

Still, she keeps the faith.

“I compared it to Stockholm Syndrome, where you fall in love with your captor," she said. "The Catholic Church is the Stockholm Syndrome. I have always been in love with the Catholic Church."

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Since the explosion of the #MeToo movement, state interest in statute of limitations reform has spiked. In 2017, legislators in 11 states proposed loosening those laws on sex crimes involving children. This year, 33 states are considering reforms, according to Child USA. In 10, legislators want to set up lookback windows.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a law opening a window on Monday, a bill that will go to the governor for a signature. Months earlier, in November 2018, dioceses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania announced their intention to set up compensation programs, which would settle with the very survivors who might otherwise participate in costly, revealing lawsuits made possible by such a window.

The Catholic Church has opposed lookback windows for years. In a 2016 interview where he discussed his decision to set up a compensation program, New York’s Cardinal Dolan laid out why.

“While we support legislation that increases the statute of limitations prospectively, strengthens reporting laws, mandates background checks, institutes safe-environment training — we believe in these things because, guess what? We’re already doing them and they’re working,” he said. “We adamantly oppose ‘lookback’ as it compromises protection of the innocent, unfairly targets the Church, and hardly punishes those who are guilty, but hurts all those who are served by the Church.”

But Rozzi, the Pennsylvania lawmaker, pointed out that sex abuse isn’t just a problem within Catholic communities. While he supports the idea of compensation programs, he wants to know: What about all the other victims of childhood sexual abuse?

“The laws were set up to protect predators, and all victims are asking for is: Put us on the same playing field.”

If the Catholic Church uses its compensation programs as a weapon against lookback windows, he said, “They’re preventing justice for everybody.”

Rozzi said that in the early 1980s, when he was 13, a priest raped him in the rectory shower while Rozzi’s friend waited outside. Rozzi remembers staring straight ahead, thinking about what he needed to do to survive the next few minutes. He never thought that, under Pennsylvania law, he'd only have until his 20th birthday to sue over the abuse.

“The laws were set up to protect predators, and all victims are asking for is: Put us on the same playing field,” Rozzi said. The Pennsylvania grand jury also asked legislators to open up a lookback window, writing, “These victims ran out of time to sue before they even knew they had a case.”

So far, nine states have opened up lookback windows, according to Child USA. And New York just joined them: In January, the newly Democratic-controlled state Legislature voted to open up a yearlong window.

Days before its passage, the Catholic Bishops of New York State’s lobbying arm tweeted its support for the bill, after it was amended to make it clear that survivors could sue public institutions as well as private ones.

“We therefore remove our previous opposition and pray that survivors find the healing they so desperately deserve,” the lobbying group, the Catholic Conference, wrote.

That window is set to open in August and will allow survivors to sue New York dioceses, including through class-action lawsuits. (At least one has already been filed.) It’s all but certain to cost New York dioceses hundreds of millions of dollars. After a lookback window opened in Minnesota, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis declared bankruptcy and paid $210 million to 450 survivors. After California opened its own window, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid 508 survivors $660 million. At the time, it was the largest settlement yet reached in the crisis.

So far, the Archdiocese of New York, the oldest of the seven IRCP-style programs in New York state, has reportedly paid out about $64 million through its compensation program.

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Justice Robert J. Lunn sits in his office after reviewing two settlement claims against the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, including a claim by Christina Grana. (Photo by Joe Hill)

Zwilling, the Archdiocese communications director, said it decided to set up the IRCP in 2016 regardless of any potential statute of limitations reform.

“There was no assurance that lookback window was ever going to pass,” he said.

With lawsuits already percolating in New York, Barr is hoping to represent survivors, even as his own case moves forward; he’s already met with more than a dozen potential clients. Grana won’t be one of them.

In late February, just weeks after the New York law passed, the Rochester diocese offered Grana what she described as a five-figure settlement in compensation. She accepted. It had never been about the money, anyway.

“I guess it’s up to me to change my life now,” she said, sounding resigned. “Because I came forward. I told the truth. I have a voice. I think more so than anything, that’s empowered me.”

“I guess that’s what the money value is, is acknowledgement, to say, ‘We believe you.’”

Torres, meanwhile, is continuing to work with dioceses, trying to improve their response to sex abuse and better the Church from within.

“It's easier to get angry at a whole organization, a whole group of people,” Torres said. But he won’t write off the Catholic Church. There's something else that Torres believes, and it keeps him coming back to his faith.

“They're not the Church,” Torres said. “We're the Church.”

Cover: St. Patrick's Cathedral, Archdiocese of NY Parish. (Photo by Joe Hill)

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.