In recent weeks there has been much discussion about a compensation fund that would be set up by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania to pay victims of child sexual abuse. The idea of the fund comes at a time when the church is under fire by the recent statewide grand jury report. In the report, the grand jury recommended a change in the civil statute of limitations that would revive previously expired claims made by victims of child sexual abuse.
The creation of such a fund is not a new idea. It was recently implemented in New York. On it's face, the fund sounds like a great idea. The settlement fund's proponents argue that it provides millions of dollars to victims without having to go through the sometimes long and arduous litigation process. While it is true, the fund can be a quick way to resolve a claim, the funds drawbacks outweigh its benefits.
These "Funds" Are "Underfunded"
The Archdiocese of New York, and several Diocese throughout the state, recently set up a fund, similar to that which is being proposed in Pennsylvania. The Archdiocese of New York, no doubt the wealthiest in the state, paid $40 million to 189 victims - an average of $211,640 per victim. The other Dioceses in the state of New York paid far less than the $211,640 per victim average settlement. These settlement were much closer to $100,000 or less for the average victim.
Compare and contrast that with other sexual abuse settlements throughout the country which were settled after the victims were able to file lawsuits following the passage of a civil window that allowed victims to bring civil lawsuits. The Archdiocese of San Diego paid $198 million to 144 victims - an average of $1,375,000 per settlement. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles paid $660 million to 508 victims - an average of $1,299,212 per settlement. Although California is often an outlier which can be difficult to use for purposes of comparison, consider the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who last year entered into a settlement of $210 million for 450 victims - an average of $466,666 per victim. In 2011, a state neighboring Pennsylvania opened up a window for sexual abuse survivors to bring claims resulting in settlements averaging $513,000 per victim. In that case, the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, paid $77 million to 150 victims.
So, what does this information tell us about how much a voluntary fund pays victims compared to a settlement that is reached after victims are allowed to file lawsuits? It is pretty safe to assume that the victims who participated in the New York voluntary fund program received less than 25% of what victims in other states received who were permitted bring civil lawsuits.
Many Survivors Want More Than a Check
Compensation in the form of money is certainly helpful to victims of child sexual abuse. A great deal of research reveals that victims of childhood sexual abuse need considerable resources to help them pay for medical costs, therapy and mental health treatment, and other deficits which result from lost educational and occupational opportunities. However, when it comes to the holistic recovery from sexual abuse, money is just one piece of the puzzle.
Civil lawsuits afford victims the opportunity to confront their abusers and those responsible for enabling their abuse. They can do so in a controlled setting when they are ready, and in the manner that they choose. The litigation process can be a powerful vehicle which provides survivors with the answers to questions they have contemplated since the abuse happened - why did you do this to me? Who knew about this? Was it preventable? Good sexual abuse civil lawyers will videotape depositions of the witnesses they confront in their case and allow their clients to watch the process unfold and participate to the extent they wish to do so.
This process can be incredibly cathartic and a vital step in the recovery process for survivors. When victims are abused many feel that someone has taken power away from them. When they use the civil justice system to seek accountability they are reclaiming the power which was taken from them. Experiencing this shifting power dynamic can be even more important than the financial recovery.
This is Not Just About the Catholic Church
The most obvious reason the creation of a fund is not an adequate substitute for allowing victims of sexual abuse to pursue civil claims is because it leaves the overwhelming majority of victims in the dark. While the Catholic Church's sexual abuse epidemic is considerable, it is just one institution. A fund created by the church will do nothing for those abused in other religious organizations or those who suffered in other institutional settings. A comprehensive change to the statute of limitations, which includes a retroactive window, is the only way to obtain far reaching justice for all of those impacted by sexual abuse.