Several Catholic dioceses in California, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of San Diego, recently announced the formation of a “victim’s compensation fund” that would serve as an alternative to the filing of a civil lawsuit by a victim of Catholic Clergy child sexual abuse.
This is not the first time that Catholic dioceses have sought to divert clergy abuse victims from seeking civil justice by dangling the carrot of “quick easy money” in lieu of “lengthy and costly” lawsuits. Several Catholic dioceses in New York responded to the impending passage of the long-awaited New York Child Victim’s Act, by creating similar funds. The New York dioceses announced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (“IRCP”) with the hope that many, if not most, child sexual abuse victims whose claims had been foreclosed by the statute of limitations, would opt to make a claim to the fund instead of waiting for the Child Victim’s Act to pass, which would enable them to file a civil lawsuit for money damages.
In New York, many victims were not represented by their own lawyer when making a claim to the fund. The IRCP appointed a lawyer for them. The IRCP and one of the appointed lawyers are now facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that they were not acting in the best interests of the victims when negotiating the amount they would receive from the fund.
Survivor organizations like SNAP, Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, were quick to point out the motives behind this move by California Bishops and to caution victims not to rush toward this as a settlement for their claims. SNAP issued a statement that said in part:
“We believe that the best way to expose wrongdoing and enforce accountability is for crimes to be made public and for punishment and compensation to be meted out by courts, not the institutions that allowed the wrongdoing to happen in the first place. Survivors deserve a chance to have their day in court and shed light on their abuse, and that can only happen when statutes of limitations are reformed, civil windows are opened, and bishops are held accountable in courts of law.”
The motives and timing of the creation of this “victim’s fund” in California is suspect since the California Legislature is currently considering Assembly Bill 218 introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales of San Diego, CA. This legislation, which has already passed the State Assembly and is working its way through committees in the State Senate, will amend California’s current statute of limitations in civil cases of childhood sexual abuse. AB 218 will revive cases that are time-barred by the current statute of limitations for a period of 3 years. If passed and signed into law by Governor Newsom, AB 218 will enable older victims to file civil lawsuits against institutions like the Catholic Dioceses in California for sexual abuse they suffered as children at the hands of Catholic Clergy and other religious actors.
“Having represented hundreds of childhood sexual abuse victims by Catholic Clergy and others over the past twenty years, I would advise victims to be very cautious before believing that the Catholic Dioceses of California are looking out for the wellbeing of victims,” said attorney Irwin Zalkin of The Zalkin Law Firm. “The church is scared to death that this time it can’t block the State of California from doing the right thing by passing a law that will give those who were so damaged as children the right to seek civil justice,” said Zalkin. “For these Catholic Dioceses in California, now it’s all about damage control.”
Zalkin pointed out that while the relative ease of seeking recovery through a victim’s compensation fund may seem appealing to priest abuse victims, there are numerous pitfalls that far outweigh any potential benefits. According to Zalkin, the biggest risk and drawback for victims is the fact that these funds have a fixed monetary ceiling that is established by the diocese(s) establishing the fund without regard to the expected or actual number of claims made. Therefore, the more claims are made, the less amount of money can be allocated to each claim, no matter how horrible the abuse suffered by the individual claimant or how much the Diocese facilitated the abuse by protecting the perpetrator priests.
Zalkin concluded by saying, “If the Catholic Dioceses of California truly cared about the well-being of victims and was seeking reconciliation, why didn’t they create a Victim’s Compensation Fund sooner?”