The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno has been under pressure the last few months to release its own list of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. Although a list hasn’t been released yet, the diocese is rolling out a settlement program for survivors. Some attorneys who represent survivors find it to be strategic and controversial.
“The problem with that process is it allows the Catholic bishops and the diocese to hold onto the secrets and to continue thus the practices they’ve employed in the past and to avoid the excavation that comes with actual litigation,” said Jeff Anderson, founder of the law firm Jeff Anderson and Associates that’s known in California and nationwide for its work representing survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
People who were allegedly abused by a Fresno diocese priest when they were children can choose to file a claim through The Independent Compensation Program, which is separate from the church. The program is being administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille Biros, who are both known around the country for their expertise in settlement claims.
Feinberg and Biros will evaluate claims and decide which are eligible for compensation and how much that would be. An Independent Oversight Committee will assist, but can’t reject or decide which claims are eligible. There are no fees to submit a claim and no time limit on when the abuse occurred, even if it was decades ago.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Diocese of Orange, Diocese of Sacramento, Diocese of San Bernardino, and Diocese of San Diego are all implementing this program, too.
Kevin Eckery, a spokesperson for the California Catholic Conference which the Fresno diocese is a part of, is speaking on behalf of the diocese, and said the program is a way to bring closure to survivors.
“These people were damaged by priests,” Eckery said. “They were damaged by people that they ought to be able to trust and we need to make it clear this isn't acceptable.”
But, Anderson argues the point of this program is to combat a flood of litigation that could come if a state bill passes. If passed, AB-218 would open up the statute of limitation for those who were sexually abused as minors. Right now, survivors can file claims up until they turn 26-years-old through the court; this bill would change the age to 40.
AB-218 would also expand the definition of sexual abuse and instead refer to it as childhood sexaul assault. The bill has passed through the assembly and is expected to pass through the senate.
“They (California dioceses) know that’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “They know that they are going to face litigation and it's going to force them to disclose all this information and pay survivors ultimately. They know this program is a way to pay some survivors less and in the meantime keep as many secrets as they can.”
Anderson said there is “no question” that the compensation program is a “direct response” to AB-218. Although survivors don’t sign any confidentiality agreement if they receive compensation through the program, details of alleged abuse and names of accused priests aren’t released to the public. Litigation is the only thing that can do that, Anderson said, because once court documents are filed, they become public record.
Eckery said the program is expected to start next month, and said “I honestly don't know” if the timing of the compensation program relates to AB-218. Like most settlements, survivors have to agree not to bring any litigation to the diocese after the compensation is accepted. But, Eckery said, the program doesn't stop people from choosing to take the legal route instead.
“People who are going to litigate are going to litigate,” Eckery said. “What the program does do is offer people an opportunity to make a claim and go through a fast track process that isn’t delayed by the mechanics of litigation.”
The church has a “moral obligation” to recognize what has happened to survivors regardless of what the statute of limitations are,” Eckery said.
“We’ve taken strong steps in the past 15 years or so on reform and the number of new incidents that have taken place are very small,” Eckery added. “But a lot of people were damaged in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and earlier.”
Compensation programs don’t do much to protect kids in the future, Anderson argued. “They don’t have to disclose anything about what they know and when they knew it, who the offenders are and what their practices and patterns have been.”
John Winer, a California attorney who has been handling clergy abuse cases for 40 years, also said there is “no question” the compensation program seems to be designed to prevent lawsuits, maintain confidentiality, secrecy, and not reveal the full extent of clergy abuse.
“To put it another way, it allows the diocese to have another cover up,” Winer said.
However, Eckery said the right of confidentiality isn’t on the diocese, it’s on the victims because they can talk about the alleged abuse to anyone they want.
“There’s no limit to that, there’s no buying of silence in this program,” he added. “If there is a priest that has been abusive they’re [the victims] free to tell the entire world. At this point in the life of the church, there’s no hiding. I mean what is the point?”
What's happening in New York Can happen in California
When any state laws pass that open up the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, Anderson said it is typical for a wave of lawsuits to be filed, and what’s happened in New York this week is an example of that.
In New York, The New York Child Victims Act just went into effect Wednesday. The law gives survivors of childhood sexual abuse a one-year window to file court claims that were previously barred because of statute of limitations. So far, Anderson’s firm has filed more than 200 lawsuits throughout New York courts.
Anderson said what happened in New York mirrors what is starting to happen in California. When The New York Child Victims Act was brought to legislatures, the Archdiocese of New York Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program was launched. Feinberg and Brios were also the administrators for this program.
“Now California is following New York's lead and there is no questions about the motive of the Catholic bishops in doing this plan and initiating this program,” Anderson said.
Winer said whenever the statute of limitations opens up for childhood sexual abuse “we’re handling a lot of cases.” He said he expects hundreds if not thousands of cases to be filed in California courts if AB-218 passes.
The pay out compensation programs give survivors are “much lower” than they are in civil litigation, Winer said. But, he said, sometimes compensation programs could benefit survivors when their case is still outside of the statute of limitations, even if AB-218 passes.
“Even now most of the inquiries we receive, we are receiving a lot lately, are people over 40-years-old,” Winer said.
Anderson’s firm has brought clients through other compensation programs similar to Fresno’s, Anderson said, but most opt out. He added programs like these can help some people, he said, especially if they need the money.
“Well the compensation programs in New York are very emblematic of what’s likely to happen in California,” Anderson said. “The compensation that they offered were $25,000 on the very lowest end to $650,000 on the very highest end. Both of those numbers were exceptions; the average is closer to $200,000.”
The average amount survivors get in court settlements is around $1 million, Anderson said. So, these programs have the potential to save dioceses a ton of money.
Will the Fresno Diocese ever release a list of accused priests?
The Fresno Diocese is going to release a list of priests who have been accused of sexually abusing minors, Eckery said.
In June, the diocese released a statement that said a former FBI official, Dr. Kathleen McChesney, and her associates have reviewed clergy files dating back about 100 years. Eckery said that was the first stage in the process.
Now, the diocese is in the next stage. An Independent Review Board will review the findings and determine which are credible, Eckery said. The review board is made up of legal professionals, counselors, victims, and some clergy officials.
Next, Eckery said, the list will be sent to the Bishop Joseph V. Brennan and then published. There is no time estimate on when the final list will be done.
The same day the diocese said it’s working on compiling a list of accused priests, Anderson’s firm released its own list of publicly accused priests within the Fresno Diocese. The Anderson Report on Sexual Abuse in the Diocese of Fresno named 43 priests.
“Perhaps most shocking among the discoveries is that some perpetrators were intentionally transferred and retained in trusted positions with direct access to children even when they were known to be abusers,” the report found.