HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's eight Roman Catholic bishops on Friday collectively said they would back the creation of a fund to compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse whose claims were too old to qualify under the civil statute of limitations, but provided scant detail on how such a fund would work or how much money they would commit to it.
In a late-afternoon statement, the bishops said that they believe it is imperative that a panel of "qualified experts" review individual claims by victims to determine financial assistance. The victims compensation fund, they said, would allow sexual abuse survivors to avoid "difficult and prolonged litigation" but also spare the church the harmful financial repercussions — namely bankruptcy — of other measures being considered by the legislature to help victims of decades-old abuse.
"We understand that this compensation program will require substantial fiscal commitment and all dioceses will be seriously impacted," they said. "We stress that it is most important for all experts serving on this panel to be independent of the influence of the church or of any institution in which children may have been abused."
The statement was posted to the website of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church. Amy Hill, spokesperson for the Catholic Conference, said in an email that she could not provide any further detail.
The announcement comes days before the state legislature is scheduled to return to the Capitol to vote on a measure that the church has been fighting for years, a bill to allow older victims to sue for decades-old abuse. It also follows a scathing grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse released last month by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro that detailed seven decades of clergy abuse in nearly every Roman Catholic diocese in the state.
The church has launched similar funds in at least one other state. In New York, at least five dioceses have each announced their own victims compensation funds. The Archdiocese of New York alone has paid out nearly $60 million over the last two years to 278 victims through its compensation fund, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said last month.
In Pennsylvania, two people familiar with the church's discussions about the funds said they are considering a similar model to that being used in New York, with each diocese having its own fund.
The Republican-controlled legislature is scheduled to return Monday for a frenzied few weeks of votes before it wraps up its two-year session. Topping the agenda is a push by the House to approve legislation to create a two-year window to allow some child sexual abuse victims who have aged out of the statute of limitations to file civil suits. Its fate is less certain in the Senate, where Republicans who control the chamber have in the past opposed retroactively allowing victims to sue, calling it unconstitutional.
The Catholic Church and its lobbyists have fiercely opposed creating a window and similar measures over the years, saying they could lead to bankruptcies and unfairly punish today's parishioners.
But it was only in the last few weeks, following a barrage of international headlines about the grand jury's report, that the dioceses began seriously discussing the idea of a victims compensation fund.