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[BN] Watchdog

Buffalo Diocese pays $17.5M to 106 clergy sex abuse victims

[Dec. 4: Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone has stepped down, Vatican announces]

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has paid $17.5 million to 106 childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse, while rejecting 135 applicants it deemed ineligible for its voluntary compensation program.

A total of 127 settlements were offered to the accusers, ranging from $2,000 to $650,000, with an average award of $158,622. Seventeen people turned down the offers. Three people have yet to decide on offers totaling $425,000, and one person who accepted a $60,000 offer has yet to be paid, which means the diocese's total cost could end up at more than $18 million.

Despite its large price tag, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program payments could turn out to be a bargain for the diocese. Dioceses that settled claims brought through litigation ended up paying much more. In 2016, the Buffalo Diocese settled for $1.5 million a single abuse claim brought in a federal court in Hawaii.

By comparison, the largest compensation award offer was $650,000 and went to a man who accused the Rev. Michael R. Freeman of aiming a revolver at his head and repeatedly molesting him when he was a child in the 1980s. The man was one of the 17 people who rejected offers, according to his attorney, Steve Boyd.

Those who took the payments agreed not to sue, so the Buffalo Diocese avoided more than 100 potential lawsuits under a Child Victims Act signed into law in February that will allow previously time-barred abuse cases to be heard in state courts.

It’s unclear how many of the 135 applicants deemed ineligible for the compensation program will now sue, though some of them have told The Buffalo News they plan to file complaints in court when a one-year window to do so opens Aug. 14.

"I'm suing, there's no question in my mind," said John A. Polvino of Amherst, who was denied compensation because he hadn't told the diocese prior to March 1, 2018, that the Rev. Donald Becker sexually assaulted him more than 40 years ago.

"What I am looking for is punishment of the diocese and the only punishment that can be meted out at this point is financial," said Polvino. He accused the diocese of taking part in a "grand conspiracy" and cover-up of crimes.

"They need to be punished mightily," he said. "I don't think $17.5 million is enough."

It’s also unclear how many people who did not apply to the diocese program will sue.

Diocese officials Tuesday afternoon released a report that states the IRCP "offered an opportunity for healing, justice and monetary compensation" for abuse victims and was now "substantially complete." The diocese plans to publish the report in the June edition of Western New York Catholic, the diocese newspaper, according to spokeswoman Kathy Spangler.

Spangler declined to comment on the cost of the clergy abuse compensation program beyond the report's release, which followed the publication on of this story.

Bishop Richard J. Malone has said the diocese will use insurance funds, investment reserves and revenue from the sale of diocesan properties to cover the cost of the compensation awards. The diocese listed net assets totaling more than $45 million at the end of 2017.

Malone also has maintained that gifts to the diocese’s capital campaign, known as Upon This Rock, and to the annual Catholic Charities appeal will not be used toward the compensation settlements.

Nonetheless, parishioners ultimately paid for the compensation program, as their donations through parish offertory collections are the diocese’s primary source of revenue.

Malone launched the program March 1, 2018, two days after retired priest Norbert Orsolits admitted to The News that he had molested “probably dozens” of boys in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The admission led to revelations of other sex abuse cases and the uncovering of how those abuses were kept secret for so long.

“We're doing this now because I know it's the right thing to do," Malone said at the time. "The victims and our church in Western New York cannot move forward until the pain of the past is properly addressed."

But the bishop was sharply criticized for deciding that only those victims who had informed the diocese of alleged abuse prior to the date the program was launched were eligible for awards.

The Buffalo Diocese was among the last Catholic dioceses in the state to offer a compensation program. In 2017, the Archdiocese of New York paid 189 victims more than $40 million, an average of $211,640 per victims. The archdiocese conducted a second phase in 2018 that paid an additional 111 victims nearly $20 million. Across the state, not including the Buffalo Diocese, about 1,000 victims accepted $200 million in award offers through last September, according to Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who administered compensation programs on behalf of the New York archdiocese and the dioceses of Brooklyn, Rockville Centre, Syracuse and Ogdensburg.

Some of those dioceses have expanded eligibility to more victims with second and even third phases of their programs.

The 19-page report on the Buffalo compensation program said that the diocese received "an unexpectedly large number of new or previously unknown claims" and was not able to move ahead with a second phase at this time.

The report, however, also noted that the diocese will look for opportunities to implement "versions or features of the IRCP, if appropriate, in future alternative dispute resolution, including that concerning the Child Victims Act."

[Critic of clergy abuse compensation program: 'It's a virtual black hole']

The diocese hired former state Surrogate Court Judge Barbara Howe and former state Supreme Court Justice Jerome Gorski to administer the compensation program. The two former judges decided which applicants were eligible based upon criteria established by the diocese.

They also decided the size of the awards, taking into account whether the diocese had prior notice of abuse; documents corroborating nature, frequency and time of the alleged abuse; medical or counseling records; and aggravating circumstances such as the age of the victim, the severity of the abuse, the location of the abuse, threats of physical harm or retaliation, and "significant, verifiable and life-altering psychological damage."

Federal authorities investigating the handling of clergy sex abuse cases in the Buffalo Diocese served the two former judges in March with a federal grand jury subpoena for records they reviewed in their determinations.

While the program was running, diocese officials repeatedly declined to comment on how many people applied and how much it was costing. They said a report would be issued at its conclusion.

The Buffalo News reported in January that the diocese at that time had offered more than $8 million to nearly four dozen people, according to victims and lawyers.

Buffalo Diocese 2019 IRCP Report (Text)

A year later: More than 150 Buffalo priests linked to sex allegations

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