In recent years, most New York bishops have set up allegedly “independent” payout programs for victims of clergy abuse. The stated intent of the programs was to obtain “reconciliation” and “healing.” The Catholic Dioceses in New York denied accusations that their real goal was to prevent legislation reforming the statute of limitations and litigation that would reveal duplicity by the Catholic hierarchy.
From the start, we at Horowitz Law, along with many victims and advocates, were cautions if not outright skeptical. We feared that these programs had a different purpose: to stop the civil windows lawmakers were pushing that give suffering victims more chance to expose corrupt clergy in court.
“Bishops want to persuade legislators ‘back off, we’re handling this crisis ourselves’,” we said. “There’s no need for legal reforms by outsiders.”
Now, compelling evidence shows we were rightfully skeptical.
According to a leaked transcript obtained by ABC News, the most powerful and prominent US Catholic cleric — New York Cardinal Tim Dolan — believes “negotiated settlements could help counter arguments in favor of the (civil), bolstering the position of the church’s lobbyists that legislation is unnecessary because the reckoning and restitution is already underway.”
Consider these comments from the tape:
–“I think the Cardinal feels that it is providing his lawyers in Albany with additional persuasive powers not to reopen the statute – “We are already doing this, why bother? Don’t reopen the statute. We are taking care of our own problem.’ I think that is guiding Cardinal Dolan as well.”
–“We want to be able to show” legislators that victims “are accepting this money. You don’t need to change the statute.”
–The “movement afoot in Albany” was a key reason why Dolan “decided to create a program.”
Who made these troubling admissions? Ken Feinberg, the allegedly independent arbiter who Dolan picked to run his archdiocesan pay out program.
Feinberg has been hired across the country by Catholic enitities to set up similar programs. Through this call, and likely others, Feinberg apparently successfully convinced the bishops of Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo to follow Dolan’s lead and establish similar church-controlled (but Feinberg administered) funds.
The transcript also reveals a second goal that Dolan and Feinberg also kept under wraps: saving dioceses money.
In perhaps the most telling comment on the tape, Feinberg says “the fear that if the statute is reopened” settlements will ultimately be much higher. (That’s because in civil lawsuits, victims get ‘discovery’ – church records and witness testimony that typically show how church staff were complicit in a predator’s horrific crimes. That in turn leads to bigger jury awards.)
Feinberg goes on to say “Clearly, the dioceses want (to pay as many victims) $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000, rather than a $1,000,000 or $2,000,000.”
“Right now,” he brags, “we have not paid any claim, however horrific, at more than $500,000.”
Feinberg admits: “The whole point is to get the release, so we offer $10,000. In Buffalo, maybe $5,000.”
ABC notes “Feinberg also appears to have been well aware that alleged victims would feel pressure to accept offers because, prior to the enactment of the Child Victims Act, they had no other legal options.”
“If you don’t take what we are offering, you don’t have to, but what is the alternative?” Feinberg added. “Maybe Albany will change the law, but they haven’t yet.”
This suggests that at a minimum, Feinberg cares more about church officials than wounded victims. At worst, it suggests Feinberg is playing along with Dolan’s deceptions about the intent of the pay out program.
ABC also reports that “When Dolan introduced Feinberg as the administrator of the settlement program, he assured the public that (Feinberg) would have ‘complete autonomy in deciding compensation for victim-survivors.’”
“But throughout the private teleconference, Feinberg displayed a coziness with church leaders, a skepticism toward those coming forward to file claims and, at times, even an apparent distain for some alleged victims.”
On the call, Feinberg’s colleague Camille Biros said, “once we implement the program, it remains an open dialogue with the Diocese (and) are constantly on the phone with church officials.”
ABC reports that these remarks “cast doubt on whether Dolan’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program was truly designed with either independence or reconciliation in mind.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Feinberg promises two benefits of the program. (Spoiler alert: neither are “healing” or “reconciliation.”)
First, it would set up a “a range of possible payouts depending on the severity of the alleged abuse, agreed upon by the program’s administrators AND the dioceses.”
Second, without this program, some of the allegations may resolve on the courthouse steps with a $5,000,000 demand or a $2,000,000 demand,” Feinberg said. In other words, lawsuits will be filed and juries will find punitive damages against church officials who ignored or hid abuse reports.
What a cynical ploy.
Publicly tell parishioners, politicians and the press one thing – this is about healing – and admit privately that it’s really a lobbying and cost-saving tool.
Publicly claim you’re independent. Privately assure potential client that you won’t be.
It’s worth noting that both Dolan and Feinberg have been criticized in this regard as far back as 2016, when the Survivors Network blasted both men:
“Cardinal Tim Dolan’s unilateral, top-down victim pay-off program has barely begun. Yet the man Dolan picked to head it is already insulting and blaming victims. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/opinion/victims-of-priests-abuse-face-a-choice.html
Kenneth Feinberg told the New York Times that victims tend to be “procrastinators.” At best, that’s stupid. At worst, it’s hurtful. Both he and Dolan should apologize. And they should drop their insensitive, arbitrary and self-serving deadline which forces still-suffering victims to move quickly to deal with decades of pain or else be left out in the cold again.
If kids are to be safer, adults must make it easier, not harder, for victims to report sexual violence. Dolan’s selfish deadline and Feinberg’s callous comments are making it harder.
If victims are to be healed, adults must welcome their disclosures and respond to their suffering whenever victims are strong enough to step forward. Dolan and Feinberg must put the needs of deeply wounded victims ahead of their own convenience.”
Six months later, SNAP asked to sit down with Dolan and Feinberg in an effort to cooperate (apparently with no success):
“Without clear guidelines, survivor input, accountability from the diocese, and the release of evidence, many survivors fear that payouts administered by your office will be little more than ‘hush money.’”
And many wonder why many abuse victims distrust the church and these programs!