NEW YORK — It took 30 years for a former student to be ready to report he’d been sexually abused by a respected Roman Catholic priest on high school trips. But it didn’t take long to realize the priest wouldn’t be held accountable in court.
Though the church said investigators found the allegations credible, the accuser couldn’t sue or press criminal charges, mainly because of the passage of time.
Instead, he’s looking to a new compensation process set up by the Archdiocese of New York, potentially the most extensive effort of its kind to date. Some 46 people have filed claims in under two months, and the total could at least triple.
The program lets people take claims, often too old for court, to a noted outside mediator while keeping painful details private.
Yet victims’ advocates are wary, noting that the archdiocese hasn’t given any estimate of the payouts or the total it will spend. Some activists see the program as a church tactic to shield information about the handling of problem priests and counter pressure to let decades-old child sexual abuse cases go to court.
Still, the Philadelphia-area man with sharp, searing memories of those New York City school trips wants to see what the program offers. He declines to suggest a number, but money will never be enough.
“Ultimately, he’s not going to have to be judged, and he’s not going to spend any time in prison over this,” said the man, a 50-year-old in law enforcement. The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they have been sexually abused unless they agree to be identified.
U.S. Catholic leaders have been grappling with a clergy sexual abuse crisis that exploded in 2002, ignited by reporting by The Boston Globe. Nationwide, the Church has paid nearly $4 billion in settlements since 1950, more than 6,500 clergy members have been accused of abuse and hundreds have been removed from church work.
The Manhattan-based New York archdiocese — the nation’s second-biggest after Los Angeles — stands to have the largest compensation program of its kind so far, said J. Michael Reck, a lawyer for some potential claimants.
A similar Diocese of Albany program has paid out $2.4 million on 75 claims since 2004. The New York archdiocese already had fielded about 170 as-yet-unsettled allegations before announcing the program Oct. 6.
All the claims filed so far cite abuse in the 1980s or earlier by priests who are now dead or out of clergy work, said Camille Biros, one of the program’s administrators. She and Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer known for overseeing the federal 9/11 victims’ compensation fund, will decide whether claims are credible and how much to offer victims.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan has portrayed the process as a “tangible sign of the church’s desire for healing and reconciliation” inspired by Pope Francis’s designation of a Holy Year of Mercy.
It also was a year of increasingly loud calls for New York state legislation — opposed by the church — that would temporarily let child sexual abuse victims bring decades-old claims to court. Some victims’ advocates see the archdiocese compensation program as a calculating response.
“It’s a way to get out in front and posture to the parishioners and the public that ‘We care,’ and to the lawmakers say, ‘We’re fixing it,'” while avoiding the level of disclosure and payouts that lawsuits could force, says David Clohessy, the executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
In California, Delaware and some other states that extended or temporarily suspended time limits for lawsuits, settlements cost dioceses tens of millions of dollars and led some to seek bankruptcy protection.
In New York, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling calls the program “the best, most direct and most appropriate way” for victims to get compensation.
But victims’ lawyer Mitchell Garabedian says it’s tough to assess without knowing more, especially the scope of the payments. He has represented over 2,000 clergy sex abuse victims nationwide, including some pursuing the New York program and others who wish they could.
The program doesn’t cover abuse by members of religious orders, saying the orders are responsible for their monks and nuns.
That rankles Cecilia Springer, who says the Sisters of St. Ursula were unresponsive to her account of abuse by a nun at a Manhattan high school in the mid-1940s.
The archdiocese program’s limits are “another slap in the face,” said Springer, 85, who agreed to be named. “Everybody should be included, and either (Dolan) takes care of it all or makes the religious orders do it.”
The nun died in 2006, before Springer, a former nun herself, broached the allegations. The order and the school, now independent, didn’t return multiple calls about Springer’s allegations.
The man who said he was molested on school trips did see a response: The priest, Monsignor John O’Keefe, was suspended from clergy work last year while the Vatican reviews the matter. O’Keefe has denied the allegations.
“I want to know what happens, at this point, to him,” his accuser says. “If I had it my way, part of the agreement would be that he would sit down and just say ‘sorry’ to me.”