Hundreds of Clergy Abuse Survivors in Pennsylvania Given $84M

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Over a year after the release of an unprecedented grand jury report that consolidated decades of sexual abuse allegations made against Catholic clergy members across Pennsylvania, the Roman Catholic Church has forked over millions to victims.

Clouds are lit by the rising sun over St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

According to a tally by The Associated Press on Thursday, some 564 victims recouped $84 million so far, a number that is expected to grow as fund administrators sift through a backlog of sexual allegation claims. The August 2018 report accused 300 priests, deacons and seminarians across the state of more than 1,000 cases of “substantiated” sexual misconduct over the past 70 years. What’s more, it said, church leaders covered up the abuse.

The average payout between the seven of the state’s eight dioceses that launched victim-compensation funds is around $148,000 per person.

Victims were able to claim funds this year within a limited window. Each diocese independently determined eligibility rules.

Though litigation may have offered victims the chance to win more damages, some were unable to take this route because of a Pennsylvania law that mandates victims of childhood sexual abuse must file suit before reaching age 30.

Last year’s grand jury report triggered a widespread effort for reform in both how the state deals with adult victims or sexual abuse and how the Catholic Church deals with reports of sexual misconduct in the clergy.

State lawmakers are attempting to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution so that sexual abuse victims will have a two-year window for civil suits otherwise barred by the statute of limitations. The Pennsylvania Senate passed a set of bills in November that would allow any child sexual-abuse victim to sue both their abuser and the institution that covered up the abuse.

Some abuse victims like David Zernhelt, who accepted a $400,000 settlement from the Diocese of Allentown, did so because he fears politicians won’t succeed in making the change. Zernhelt told AP Thursday that, while the compensation allows him to have a fresh start, it also fails to hold the dioceses fully accountable.

“I feel that it’s a shield for the church to get a discount on paying the victims,” he told AP.

Approximately one week ago, Pope Francis announced sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church. He dissolved the Roman Catholic Church’s rule of pontifical secrecy, which covered up clergy members’ sexual abuse of children, and forbid imposing an obligation of silence on people who report sexual abuse or allege they have been a victim. He also issued documents that encouraged church members to report suspected sexual abuse to civil authorities when legally obligated.

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