The nearly $3 billion in compensation paid out so far by the U.S. Catholic Church to sex-abuse victims has encouraged lawyers in Europe to seek new cases to “take advantage of this legal goldmine,” says Massimo Franco, a leading Italian commentator on Vatican affairs. In doing so, he contends, they may have expanded the dimensions of the church's already serious crisis in Europe.
Catholics staged ’round-the-clock vigils at St. Bernard's Catholic Church in Newton, Mass., in 2004 to prevent the archdiocese from closing their and other local churches. Citing financial woes stemming in part from the payment of large damages to victims of the priest sex-abuse scandal, the archdiocese had planned to close 83 of 357 parishes in the Boston area. In the end, St. Bernard's was kept open. (Getty Images/Darren McCollester)
Victims' payments by the U.S. church have ranged from a few thousand dollars to millions. The largest single out-of-court settlement was $660 million, which the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay to 508 victims in July 2007. And the San Diego diocese paid $191.1 million in settlements for 14 child-abuse victims. In both cases, some of the incidents dated as far back as the 1940s.
Several U.S. dioceses ended up declaring bankruptcy; others sold off real estate, closed or merged local schools, cut spending on Catholic hospitals or borrowed heavily to meet the claims against them. The Portland, Ore., diocese was the first to file for bankruptcy, saying it could not meet claims by sex-abuse victims. The move halted hearings of a suit seeking $155 million against Father Maurice Grimmond, who allegedly molested more than 50 boys in the 1980s. Grimmond died in 2002.
Like the European lawyers, Europe's bishops have seen the financial fallout of the U.S. abuse cases and are bracing for a hemorrhage of their own diocesan resources in order to compensate victims. They also are realizing the high cost of years of covering up the scandals.
In Ireland, the scandal is still unfolding, but 48 settlements have cost Irish bishops 8.1 million euros (about $20.5 million.) But unlike in the United States, in several European countries, including Ireland and Belgium, Catholicism is the official state religion, and members of the clergy receive a government salary. In those countries, the government will share the burden. For example, the Irish hierarchy has already received government support of nearly $1 million toward damage payments to victims and legal costs.
Still, Ireland's bishop of Wexford — perhaps knowing what's in store — has re-mortgaged his palace for $2 million. And Bishop Denis Brennan of Ferns astonished commentators when he proposed that the 100,000 parishoners in his diocese jointly contribute a total of $83,000 a year — over 20 years — to lighten the diocese's compensation burden.
And in Germany, many believe the hierarchy is in for sticker shock, now that it has promised to pay compensation of 5,000–10,000 euros (up to $12,000) per victim, and cover the cost of therapy and other required treatment. Although no one knows yet how widespread the German scandal may turn out to be, so far 664 alleged victims have come forward.
The German hierarchy said it will compensate abuse victims on a case-by-case basis and will not entertain group claims. Victims' lawyers — citing the U.S. settlements — say they will seek compensation of about 82,373 euros ($107,000) for each victim.
The German Jesuit community has said it is prepared to pay its abused former students about 5,000 euros ($6,500) each. The head of the Jesuit order in Germany, Father Stefan Kiechle, said that while the payment was only symbolic, “the gesture we offer is painful to us.”
But if the American experience is anything to go by, say observers, it's going to get a lot more painful before the cases are resolved.
— Roland Flamini