Letter: LI Catholic diocese creates sex abuse compensation program

St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, the seat of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, on Oct. 1, 2016. / T.C. McCarthy

The Diocese of Rockville Centre is creating an independent compensation program for people who were sexually abused by priests — the latest effort in New York to bring closure to a horrific chapter in modern Catholic church history.

The diocese this week sent letters to those who previously have filed such complaints with diocesan officials, according to attorneys representing some of them....

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The Diocese of Rockville Centre is creating an independent compensation program for people who were sexually abused by priests — the latest effort in New York to bring closure to a horrific chapter in modern Catholic church history.

The diocese this week sent letters to those who previously have filed such complaints with diocesan officials, according to attorneys representing some of them. Newsday obtained a copy of the letter Friday.

The program will be modeled after similar ones established in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn during the past year.

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Under those programs, victims deemed eligible for financial compensation must agree not to pursue legal action against the church in the future in order to collect. Rockville Centre’s program could encompass dozens of cases of alleged abuse, in some cases dating back decades.

In a statement to Newsday, Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, wrote, “In the interest of providing survivors with advance notice of our impending Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, the Director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People sent a letter advising them of what would be occurring. A formal diocesan announcement will be made in the near future.”

The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program will be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, who currently is in charge of the funds in the Archdiocese of New York and the Brooklyn diocese, according to the letter.

Feinberg has administered the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, as well as compensation programs stemming from the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and abuse claims brought against former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

It was not immediately clear how many letters the diocese sent or how many alleged victims could come forward.

Attorney Michael Dowd, a Manhattan-based lawyer who is handling such cases in the New York archdiocese and the Brooklyn diocese, said he has at least 35 cases in Rockville Centre. He said he has 80 cases in Brooklyn and 20 in the New York archdiocese.

Dowd said settlements accepted by his clients in the Archdiocese of New York’s program generally have ranged from the low-to-mid six figures, though he believes some in the Diocese of Brooklyn’s program could exceed $1 million.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre’s letter said “while no amount of monetary compensation could ever erase or undo the unimaginable harm suffered by victims of child abuse, it is the sincere hope of the DRVC that those who have been alienated and distanced from the Church as a result of any abuse committed by DRVC clergy will be empowered to begin the journey toward reconciliation with us.”

Feinberg and Camille Biros — a business manager in his Washington, D.C., law firm who has been closely involved in administering other compensation funds — will independently determine who is eligible for compensation and how much money will be offered, the letter says.

Feinberg, the letter says, “is deeply experienced and highly respected in the field of compensation programs.”

The Archdiocese of New York announced its compensation program in October 2016, followed by the Diocese of Brooklyn in June.

Those programs operate in two phases: In phase one, alleged victims who previously had reported abuse to church officials can apply for compensation. In phase two, alleged victims who never had reported allegations of abuse can apply.

In the Archdiocese of New York, the total of victims eligible for the first phase was about 170, archdiocese officials said.

Dowd said he is urging people to apply to the programs and then decide whether to accept an offer. All 14 of his clients whose allegations involved clergy in the Archdiocese of New York and who have been given settlement offers have accepted them, he said.

“I think this is a good effort,” Dowd said. “I’ve been dealing for nine months with Ken Feinberg and people in his office. I find them to be really quite competent and good and decent. Ken Feinberg is a decent guy, there is no way around it, and a straight shooter.”

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who represents clergy sex abuse victims in Boston and New York, said the program “gives those clergy sexual abuse victims who want to try to heal an opportunity to try to heal.”

The sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002 when The Boston Globe broke the story of widespread sexual abuse by clergy going back decades — and the church’s efforts to cover it up by moving priests from parish to parish.

In Rockville Centre, a grand jury report released by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota in 2003 described a history of covered-up sexual abuse by priests in the diocese from the 1960s into the 1990s.

Dowd said he is urging victims to seriously consider participating in the compensation program because of the slim likelihood that state legislators will lift a statute of limitations that requires victims of child sex abuse to file charges against their alleged perpetrators before they turn 23.

The Catholic Church has lobbied against efforts to overturn the law, saying it could nearly bankrupt the church.

Garabedian, who was portrayed by actor Stanley Tucci in the 2015 film “Spotlight” about the Boston scandal, noted that victims can enter the program but are not obligated to accept the offers made.

“The program, unfortunately for many victims, does not hold supervisors” in the church accountable, he said. “It does not allow for the production of documents which would show that the church’s supervisors were culpable. It is an attempt to cut off at the pass the possibility of the statute of limitations changing with regard to clergy sexual abuse cases in the state of New York.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York archdiocese has said he hopes its program becomes a model for other dioceses.

Dowd said many of his clients accepted the settlements in part because they are aging.

“It’s not that they think it’s a great offer,” he said. “Many of my clients are getting older, seriously older. For them, the gamble that something will happen in the state Senate to get a bill passed to alter the statute of limitations is a real risk, and they are at ages where they don’t know if they will be around if and when the statute changes. And then it goes into court, and then it will be four or five years after that.”