The Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, some reeling from their own clergy abuse scandals, announced plans on Monday to establish a unified victim-compensation fund aimed at providing money to some people abused as children by clergy members.
"This is the first time we're doing a statewide program using the same protocol and the same eligibility criteria," said Camille Biros, who will administer the program and currently oversees similar ones in New York state and Pennsylvania. "This is important news, and we're looking forward to working with all the dioceses in the state."
Details are still being finalized, and the plan likely won't include all victims. As has been the case elsewhere, people determined to have been abused by religious-order priests, rather than those who report directly to a diocese, are likely to be excluded.
People who accept money from the compensation fund will be required to sign a form saying that they will not to sue the diocese. The agreements would not include a confidentiality clause for victims, Biros said.
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"Administrators of this program are bound by confidentiality," she said, adding: "But the claimant can speak to whomever they want. ... They can talk about the money; they can talk about the process."
Such funds have typically proved controversial. Some clergy-abuse victims welcome the news of such funds, viewing them as a path toward justice, since they are barred from filing lawsuits by civil statutes of limitations. Others view them more cynically, saying they represent the church's effort to quash debate on bills designed to give older victims of abuse a temporary window to file time-barred claims and avoid potentially large financial payouts in the courts.
"In a very limited way, it's a positive step for some," said Mark Crawford, New Jersey state director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "But it should never be a replacement for what our legislators and our civil society need to do."
The dioceses' decision comes as legislators in New Jersey are grappling with whether to change the state's civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse, a move that could prove costly for the church. They also come weeks after New Jersey's attorney general announced the first arrest by his Clergy Abuse Task Force, which was formed last year in the wake of a damning report in Pennsylvania.
The New Jersey fund, which will be called the Independent Victim Compensation Program, is expected to launch this year. Biros said she expected it to roll out in two phases: the first addressing victims who have made claims with the various dioceses, and the second aimed at working with victims who are just coming forward.
A "draft protocol" outlining the program will be published in the coming weeks at www.NJdiocesesIVCP.com, and people will have 30 days to submit comments. After that, Biros and her colleague, Kenneth Feinberg, will finalize the terms and begin accepting claims, aiming to conclude much of their work by the end of the year.
Biros said she and Feinberg will determine payouts based on a number of factors including the age of the child, the nature of the abuse, the impact on the victims' lives, and whether drugs and alcohol were a factor. There "isn't necessarily a cap" on payments, she said.
The pair also administer similar funds for dioceses in Pennsylvania and New York. They have received 85 claims in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and have paid out more than $7 million to date, Biros said. She said they have also received seven complaints in the Scranton Diocese and five or six in Pittsburgh, where payments have not yet been made.
The highest individual payout was for $500,000, stemming from a case in New York, Biros said. By comparison, a lawsuit filed by four men against the Diocese of Brooklyn and another entity resulted last year in one of the largest court settlements for clergy abuse victims: $27.5 million.
The decision to create the New Jersey fund comes as pressure is mounting around the world on the Roman Catholic Church. Church officials were already grappling with scandals abroad when Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a report last year indicating that more than 300 "predator priests" had abused children over seven decades and that some in the church had worked to bury the allegations.
That sparked a flurry of activism in Pennsylvania, with abuse victims gathering in the state Capitol to call for changes to the criminal and civil statutes of limitations – measures that died last session.
It also renewed conversation in New Jersey, where lawmakers have debated for years whether to extend or eliminate the statute for child sexual abuse. State Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Democrat from Middlesex County, introduced a bill last year that would remove the civil statute of limitations in some cases pertaining to sex abuse. The bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A companion bill remains in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Todd Kostrub, 54, who lives on Long Beach Island, has been advocating for that measure for years. On Monday, Kostrub said he was sexually abused by a Franciscan brother at the Burlington County school and parish he attended as a child. The abuse, he said, started when he turned 7 and lasted until he left for college.
It took him 15 years from when the abuse ended to tell his family about what had happened to him – a decision triggered by his sister's wedding, which was happening in the parish where the abuse occurred. By then, it was too late. In New Jersey, to file civil claims, victims of child sexual abuse have until their 20th birthday or two years after "reasonable discovery" that their personal struggles stemmed from their abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and CEO of Child USA.
Like some others who were allegedly abused by religious order clergy, he will be unable to apply for compensation under the fund program, because his abuser was not a diocesan priest. But even if he could, he said, he would prefer to try his case in court, where he could find out who may have known about his abuser and what they did or didn't do about it.
"The compensation fund does nothing to share information with the victim, what they knew, when they knew it," said Kostrub. "It's almost like a silencing fund. They give you a little bit of money and tell you to get lost. To me as a victim, it's a shield for the truth."
The dioceses may also be feeling pressure from law enforcement. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced last month the arrest of Thomas P. Ganley, 63, a Phillipsburg-area priest accused of sexual assault between 1990 and 1994, when he was working as a priest in Woodbridge. When it announced the arrest, Grewal's office also said his task force was reviewing the dioceses' memoranda of understanding with law enforcement. The documents, entered in 2002 after the Boston scandal, outline when New Jersey dioceses must refer allegations to law enforcement.