Editorial: Money and Clergy Victims

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
February 4, 2003

If nothing else, the financial report released last week by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee shows the importance of approving proposed state legislation that would allow victims of clergy sexual abuse to sue the church.

The report was promised by Archbishop Timothy Dolan as part of his effort to be more forthcoming - and to provide more accountability to Catholics - regarding the impact of the abuse scandal on the archdiocese. That he kept this promise is to his credit, and it should be pointed out that the report does not reflect on his tenure at the archdiocese, which began only last August.

According to the report, the archdiocese has paid nearly $6.3 million to handle cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Although $2.8 million of that was picked up by insurance companies, that's still a pretty hefty price tag for parishioners.

But the cost could have been - and probably should have been - higher. The archdiocese paid about $3.9 million in settlements prior to 1995, when a state Supreme Court decision effectively choked off victim lawsuits. After that decision, between mid-May 1995 and June 2002, the archdiocese paid out $154,800 in settlements.

It seems unlikely that victims suddenly decided en masse to suffer in silence. What's far more likely is that church officials asked a simple financial question: Why should they agree to pay a voluntary settlement when the victim has no leverage to compel one through the courts?

And that question says something about what mattered to church officials. Other numbers apparently say much the same thing. Up to 1995, the archdiocese paid $483,700 for therapy and assistance for victims. After 1995, it paid $153,969. In addition, the archdiocese paid $1.3 million in attorneys fees before the decision (nearly three times what it paid for victims' therapy and assistance) and $218,542 afterward. The 1995 decision seems to have saved the church a bundle of cash.

But, as we have said, justice in this society at this time is at least partly measured in dollars. The church cannot wave a magic wand and heal the devastating trauma inflicted on victims by priest pedophiles and the bishops who provided cover for them. However, it can provide appropriate financial restitution to help victims deal with their pain and betrayal.

That it largely failed to do so when the threat of lawsuits was removed provides perhaps the best argument for legislation to restore that threat, as has been proposed by state Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). The failure also undermines the current argument of archdiocesan officials that lawyers should be kept out of any mediation process involving victims who have filed suit against the archdiocese.

Keeping out the lawyers was the major impact of the 1995 decision. The archdiocese's own numbers show how much that decision did for the church - and how little it did for victims.


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