Amid the latest wave of sexual-abuse investigations and allegations against the Catholic Church, victims whose criminal cases are too old to bring to court are considering suing the church. To stem the tide of potential settlement costs, some dioceses, like the one in Scranton, Pennsylvania, are creating compensation programs for victims.
There’s one catch: Taking the settlement means shielding the church from having to make certain documents public and victims are then barred from further lawsuits.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, more than a dozen states—Louisiana not among them—are considering lifting the civil statute of limitations on child sexual abuse or already have done so. The legislation, if passed, would unleash a surge of new lawsuits against the church.
A wave of sexual abuse litigation would present a serious threat to both the church’s finances and its reputation. Large jury awards and settlements could cost the church millions, while legal discovery could make public documents showing how dioceses dealt with abuse.
As lawmakers debate the measures, Catholic dioceses in at least six states have begun to offer victim compensation programs.
The programs, which are run by third-party administrators outside the church, offer swifter resolution than trials, and alleged victims are less likely to walk away empty-handed. They also shield the church against lawsuits that could cause greater damage.
Payouts pale compared with what victims have won in court. Those who accept settlements must agree not to sue the church in the future.
The programs could ultimately save Catholic institutions hundreds of millions of dollars, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who also has worked on clergy abuse cases as a lawyer.
But for some, the money isn’t enough, raising the prospect that the crisis could drag on for years. Many alleged victims want access to church records about their alleged abusers. Taking a case to court is a chance to make public any evidence that church officials hid the abuse.