800 Victims, $126 Million

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by William Mahoney, Ph.D.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 8, 2020   

Cost of sex abuse cover-up rising in Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA (ChurchMilitant.com) - The archdiocese of Philadelphia foresees paying out $126 million to victims of clergy sex abuse as dioceses throughout the state of Pennsylvania continue to suffer financial hardship in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal. 

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Abp. Charles Chaput

In November 2018, then-archbishop Charles Chaput announced an Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program (IRRP) for compensating victims of clergy sex abuse by clergy of the archdiocese. In addition to what has already been paid out since the formation of the IRRP, the archdiocese said on Tuesday it expects to pay out an additional $126 million.

Installed the 10th archbishop of Philadelphia in February, Abp. Nelson Perez wrote a letter Tuesday to the faithful to update them on the IRRP, as the claims submission period has expired. 

"As of April 22, 2020, a total of 800 individuals have come forward to the IRRP. 615 of these individuals have submitted formal claims," he wrote. "Given the claims experience to date, the archdiocese currently estimates the total cost of the IRRP to be approximately $130 million. As of April 22, 2020, $43.8 million of total compensation had already been paid to resolve 208 claims fully."

This means the average payout per claim is a little over $200 thousand per victim. 

Assuring the faithful the additional IRRP funding will not come from collection baskets, Perez said, "To fund the remaining IRRP obligations, we pursued the sale of certain archdiocesan assets, borrowing and risk mitigation payments from related ecclesiastical entities."

To fund the ... obligations, we pursued the sale of certain archdiocesan assets, borrowing and risk mitigation payments from related ecclesiastical entities.

"This course of action is providing approximately $33.2 million from the sale or lease of non-restricted assets; $28 million in risk mitigation payments; and $25 million derived from loans," he added. 

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report 

Released in August 2018, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report (PGJR) showed that over 1,000 children were abused throughout the state by 301 priests who had been routinely moved around to cover up their crimes. 

Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia were excluded from the investigation since both had already been the subjects of earlier investigations, while the PGJR's exposure of the remaining six dioceses — Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Erie — has compounded the moral and financial crisis for the Church in Pennsylvania. 

Once the report was released, Pennsylvania lawmakers began pushing for new legislation on the statute of limitations for prosecuting cases of child sex abuse, as the surrounding states of New York and New Jersey had done.

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In November 2019, their efforts met with some success when Gov. Tom Wolf signed new legislation removing the statute of limitations for prosecuting future cases of child sex abuse and allowing victims to sue up until the age of 55. Previous state law permitted suing up until the age of 30. 

But unlike New York and New Jersey, the new legislation in Pennsylvania did not provide a so-called "lookback window," that is, a one-time period — usually one year — for any victim to sue regardless of whether the statute of limitations had expired.

You have an organization that financially is paying out more than it's taking in.

Nevertheless, the number of victims coming forward in the wake of the PGJR continued to wreak havoc for the Church. 

Bankruptcy: 'Good-Faith' Effort?

The financial hit brought on by the inundation of clergy sex abuse cases to the diocese of Harrisburg was hard enough to lead Bp. Ronald Gainer to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. 

"You have an organization that financially is paying out more than it's taking in," said diocesan attorney Matt Haverstick at the time. 

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Cdl. Donald Wuerl (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

"It's an attempt  — and bankruptcy is used as a dirty word, but it shouldn't be — it's a good-faith effort for an organization who doesn't want to skip out on their bills. This an attempt to put the diocese on good, solid, financial footing," he added. 

Other dioceses responded to the crisis by establishing victim compensation funds such as the archdiocese of Philadelphia's IRRP. 

Pittsburgh Under Infamous Cover-Up Prelate

Cardinal Donald Wuerl's name appeared almost 200 times in the PGJR, showing the former bishop of Pittsburgh shuffled around predator priests, including one involved in a pederast ring.

Of the 301 clergy sex abusers named in the PGJR, one-third of them came from Pittsburgh. 

Bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988–2006, Wuerl "transferred and reassigned priests he knew to have abused male teens, hiding information from police and even paying off one priest in exchange for his silence on priestly misconduct," according to the report. 

One of Wuerl's strangest cover-ups involved Fr. George Zirwas, who was connected to a priest pederast ring and ultimately found dead in Havana, Cuba — murdered by a gay prostitute. 

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Fr. George Zirwas

In 1991, Wuerl received the third complaint of his tenure about Zirwas but left him in ministry for another four years. In 1995, Wuerl placed Zirwas on a permanent leave of absence, but the diocese continued to support the pederast priest who moved to Florida, even increasing his monthly stipend in exchange for his silence.

The PGJR also revealed Wuerl knew about the pederast ring and kept information about it from law enforcement during an investigation from 1988 to 1999.

Months after the PGJR, the diocese of Pittsburgh announced a wave of budget cuts, including staff reductions. In a press release at the time, a diocesan spokesman said, "The Diocese of Pittsburgh has been undergoing cost-cutting efforts, and Bp. Zubik [current bishop of Pittsburgh] has consistently stated that for proper stewardship of our resources we cannot operate at a deficit."

The $126 million the archdiocese of Philadelphia expects to pay out to victims of clergy sex abuse through its IRRP does not render the archdiocese immune from civil lawsuits for alleged victims up to the age of 55. 

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