The Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, some reeling from their own clergy abuse scandals, announced plans on Monday to establish a unified victims compensation fund aimed at providing money to some people who were abused by clergy members as children.
"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 and Pennsylvania. "This is important news, and we're looking forward to working with all the dioceses in the state."
Details of the plan are still being finalized, and it 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 the diocese, are likely to be excluded.
Such compensation funds have typically proven 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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
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.
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 neighboring Pennsylvania.
The New Jersey fund, which will be called the Independent Victim Compensation Program, is expected to launch later this year. Biros said she expects it to roll out in two phases: the first addressing victims who have already made claims with the various dioceses, and the second aimed at working with new victims who come forward.
A "draft protocol" outlining the terms of 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, such as 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 paid out more than $7 million to date there, 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, she said, was for $500,000, stemming from a case in New York. 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.
People who accept money from the compensation fund will be required to sign a release saying that they will not sue the diocese.
The decision to create the New Jersey fund comes at a time when public pressure is mounting across the globe 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 and some in the church had worked to bury the allegations.
That sparked a flurry of activism in Pennsylvania, with abuse victims gathering in the Capitol to call for changes to the criminal and civil statute 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 of limitations for child sexual abuse. State Sen. Joseph Vitale, a Democrat from Woodbridge, 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.
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.