Milwaukee Archdiocese Offers Settlement For Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse

August 5, 2015
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

Peter Isley, front left, Charles Linneman, front middle, and Monica Barrett, front right, stand before a group of other clergy sexual abuse victims outside federal bankruptcy court Thursday, April 17, 2014, in Milwaukee. Hundreds of sexual abuse victims have filed claims against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in bankruptcy court. (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson) (AP Photo/M.L. Johnson)

It has been more than a decade since the Catholic Church became engulfed in lawsuits stemming from allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in the United States. On Tuesday, one of the largest cases in the scandal inched closer to a resolution after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced that it would pay $21 million to around 330 alleged victims of abuse.

While the agreement would end the longest-running church bankruptcy in U.S. history, it also ranks among the smallest settlements to emerge from the scandal for a case of its size. If given final approval by a judge, the settlement would be the fourth largest in terms of the number of alleged victims, but 27th in terms of compensation, according to data compiled by the website BishopAccountability.org.

A key sticking point in negotiations was $57 million in archdiocese funds that was diverted into a cemetery trust, a move that shielded church dollars from the legal claims of abuse victims. In the 2014 FRONTLINE investigation Secrets of the Vatican, attorney Jeff Anderson said that plaintiffs had evidence showing that approval for the transfer came directly from the Vatican.

“To me it was designed to do one thing, to keep the archdiocese and the Vatican from having to account for their crimes and complicity in them,” Anderson told FRONTLINE in the below scene from the film, arguing that the Vatican played a key role in protecting and covering up for accused priests. “No other real or legitimate reason.”

The church argued that the money was always committed to the cemeteries, and a court upheld the transfer of funds. In 2011, four years after the trust was created, the church filed for bankruptcy in the face of mounting allegations.

Prior to this week’s agreement, it had offered $4 million to roughly 125 alleged victims.

“Today, we turn the page on a terrible part of our history and we embark on a new road lined with hope, forgiveness and love,” said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in a statement. “We do so remembering those who have been harmed; keeping them in our prayers; supporting them through therapy and healing; promising never to forget the evil that has been done; and working diligently to ensure this never happens again.”

If approved, the settlement and associated legal costs will be financed by $16 million from the cemetery trust, with an additional $11 million coming from the archdiocese’s insurance carriers. The archdiocese will also reserve $500,000 for therapy for alleged victims.

Around 240 alleged victims would not be covered by the settlement, including those who have previously sued the church or received settlements from past cases.

Among those who will not receive compensation is Monica Barrett, who alleged that she was raped by Father William Effinger in 1968 when she was 8 years old. Her 1993 suit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations, but the diocese of Milwaukee sued her to recover $14,000 in legal expenses.

Barrett, who shared her story of abuse in Secrets of the Vatican, told the National Catholic Reporter, “It’s very hard for the people who are getting nothing but it’s also hard for those who are getting paid … How will this provide any sense of healing when the person you stood shoulder to shoulder with all these years is getting nothing?”

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee Archdiocese has spent more than $70 million in relation to its clerical sex abuse crisis over the years, including legal fees, settlements and payments for therapy. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that the Catholic Church has spent nearly $3 billion in response to allegations of abuse since 2004.

News of the settlement comes as Pope Francis tries to set a new tone for the Vatican in its response to allegations of sexual abuse by clergy. In June, Pope Francis approved the formation of a tribunal that would hear cases of bishops accused of covering up cases of child sexual abuse by priests. Last year, he met with victims of sex abuse by members of the clergy.

Related Film: Secrets of the Vatican

An inside look at the scandals that rocked Benedict’s papacy.

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