Pennsylvania dioceses outline child sex abuse victim funds

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Seven Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania said Thursday that they have taken steps to set up victim compensation funds, nearly three months after a chilling grand jury report documented decades of child sexual abuse by priests in the state.

The Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Scranton and Allentown dioceses issued public announcements, and a lawyer for the Greensburg Diocese said it is also involved. The Erie and Pittsburgh dioceses said they were setting up funds but were not ready to disclose details. Altoona-Johnstown said it set up a victim fund in 1999.

The announcements did not mention a total dollar amount for the funds or their maximum potential individual payouts.

Five of the dioceses have hired veteran compensation fund coordinator Ken Feinberg to design and operate their programs. The Philadelphia fund will begin taking applications next week, setting a filing deadline for claims at the end of next September, said Camille Biros, Feinberg's co-administrator. Harrisburg, Erie, Greensburg and Scranton are expected to begin their programs in January, she said.

In statements, the dioceses described sources for the money, including borrowing, property sales, investments and insurers.

"For the most part, they're telling us, 'We want to get this done, so whatever it takes to get these resolved,'" Biros said.

Payouts and total fund amounts will not be disclosed by the dioceses, and church officials will have no say in decisions about eligibility or payout amounts, she said.

A legislative effort to change state law to allow a two-year window for people to sue in abuse cases that are otherwise too old to pursue passed the state House, but it was blocked by Republican state senators last month. Opponents, including Catholic bishops and the insurance industry, expressed concerns about the cost and argued that a retroactive change would violate the state constitution.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat and leading advocate for the lawsuit window, said negotiations have continued and he sees a possibility of a deal by year's end.

"And if not, we're going to be back at it next year," Rozzi said.

The landmark grand jury report released in August estimated hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office oversaw the investigation, said lawmakers should enact the window along with other changes to state law that the jury recommended - eliminating time limits on criminal prosecutions for sexual abuse of children, clarify penalties for failing to report child abuse and banning confidentiality agreements that prevent victims from speaking with law enforcement.

Shapiro said the grand jury "recommended that victims deserve their day in court - not that the church should be the arbiter of its own punishment. These undefined compensation funds do not give a pass to lawmakers - the Legislature should return to Harrisburg, do their jobs and pass the grand jury's four reforms."

The announcements come as the chief federal prosecutor in Philadelphia has begun investigating whether Pennsylvania diocese officials broke any federal child exploitation laws.

Ben Andreozzi, a lawyer who represents dozens of people in each of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses who claim to have been abused by priests, said such funds can be helpful. But, he said, they can also avoid full disclosure of what occurred, do not help victims whose abuse had nothing to do with the Catholic Church and typically deliver less money to a victim than a lawsuit.

"The biggest drawback in a fund like this is that it does not force the institution to come clean with all the information that it has regarding the abuse," Andreozzi said. "And oftentimes the victims don't get fair market value for their claims."

Feinberg and Biros ran victims' compensation funds set up by five New York dioceses in recent years. They put no cap on payouts, but $500,000 is the most paid out to one individual, Biros said. Factors to determine the size of the payouts included the severity of the abuse, the age of the victim and the long-term effect on the victim's life.

"I think that the programs in New York have been very well received, and we're hoping the same will be true for the Pennsylvania dioceses," Biros said.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese said its program would be overseen by a three-person committee, including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, former interim Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge and Lawrence Stengel, a retired federal judge. It plans to sell properties but will not dip into money for charities, seminaries, donor-designated gifts or donations to parishes, ministries or schools.

Allentown, which has not hired Feinberg, said an independent board will oversee an administrator's decision about compensation. It plans to announce a timetable and other details shortly. Erie said its fund parameters were being finalized.

Harrisburg said its program will be funded by its reserve, unrestricted accounts, investments and its insurers. Scranton said its fund will be paid with reserves and it will sell assets and borrow money. A lawyer for Greensburg said it planned to release details.

Pittsburgh said it will outline its program by the end of the year, and Bishop David Zubik recently scheduled "listening sessions" around the diocese to help determine how the program will operate. Biros said the Feinberg team has been in talks with the Pittsburgh diocese about possibly operating its program.

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Associated Press reporter Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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