NEW YORK — Victims of clergy sex abuse willing to forego lawsuits against New York’s Roman Catholic archdiocese can seek compensation through a new church fund announced Thursday, but any records of such abuse and what the church did about problem priests will remain private.
The program will be led by Kenneth Feinberg, who managed the federal compensation fund for Sept. 11 victims, with oversight by former New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, among others.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the New York archbishop, said he created the fund because victims have said they need “a tangible sign of the church’s outreach and sense of reparation.”
“The wounds of many continue to fester, and they understandably tell us they await more compassion,” said Dolan, flanked by Feinberg and Kelly, at a news conference in the archdiocese’s Manhattan offices.
The archdiocese announced the program at a time when victim advocates are pressing New York legislators to expand or temporarily abolish time limits on lawsuits over child sex abuse.
In other states that have done away with those time limits, lawsuits filed by victims have forced church leaders to release thousands of internal church files revealing how bishops sheltered abusers. The litigation has resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements for hundreds of victims and prompted some dioceses to seek bankruptcy protection.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group that maintains records of clergy abuse, called the New York fund “another tactic designed to fend off disclosure.”
The inner workings of the fund will be private, although victims can decide whether to reveal their involvement.
Marci Hamilton, a legal expert who has advised victims, said the fund doesn’t eliminate the need for a change in the statute of limitations, but does provide “another pathway for justice.”
“It is a smart way to increase access to some kind of compensation for victims who probably wouldn’t be able to handle the rigors of the legal system,” said Hamilton, chief executive of CHILD USA, a think tank on preventing child abuse and neglect.
Under the program, people with abuse claims already pending with the archdiocese will have until Jan. 31 to apply for compensation.
Dolan said about 200 people have made allegations against about 40 priests, and 30 of those victims have already agreed to voluntary settlements.
A second phase starting Feb. 1 will be open to new applicants, who will be asked for supporting documentation, such as evidence that they complained about the abuse at the time it occurred.
Feinberg and mediator Camille Biros will evaluate the claims and decide how they will be paid. There will be no cap on compensation and the archdiocese has agreed to pay whatever amount Feinberg and Biros order. Each complaint will be shared with the relevant district attorney, Dolan said.
Feinberg has extensive experience mediating victims’ compensation, including in the Pennsylvania State University sex abuse scandal and in the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill.
New York state lawmakers have long debated extending the statute of limitations on suing child sex abusers or creating a window of opportunity for past victims to file civil suits against abusers. Such proposals have faced strong opposition from the Catholic Church and other institutions.
The leading proposal in the Legislature would eliminate the statute of limitations for several child sexual abuse crimes going forward. It also would create a one-time, one-year window for past victims to file civil suits at the time the measure becomes law. Victims now have until they turn 23 to file lawsuits, but supporters say it can take years before victims step forward.
In May, an attempt by supporters in the state Senate to force a vote on the measure failed.
Dolan said the archdiocese would take out a long-term loan to cover compensation payments and would not dip into funds contributed by church members to support parishes, schools or charities.