Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town
Inside Immaculate Conception Catholic Church before Mass in Old Town San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

The new victims’ compensation fund established by Catholic dioceses in California promises six-figure payouts, but it’s really an effort by the church to tempt innocent sexual abuse victims not to file a lawsuit.

This fund was set up by six of the largest dioceses in California in anticipation of new legislation, Assembly Bill 218, which is currently on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature. AB 218, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature, will open a three-year window for new civil claims that had been barred by California’s restrictive statue of limitations laws. This legislation would allow potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of clergy abuse victims to sue the Catholic dioceses of California for allowing the abuse to happen and for covering up decades of clergy abuse.

The last time such a window of opportunity was allowed in California was in 2003, when more than 1,000 victims filed lawsuits with an average settlement of $1.3 million. Offering to pay victims pennies on the dollar compared to what they may receive under the civil justice system is nothing less than a scam to save the dioceses and their insurers millions of dollars.

The church is calling this program the “Independent Compensation Fund.”  There is nothing  independent  about this fund. The dioceses are paying the fund administrators who will be deciding what a victim gets based on a schedule. These private settlements will do nothing to expose the clergy involved in the abuse and the cover-up by the dioceses. No documents will be released as part of a victim’s settlement with the fund.

Survivor organizations like SNAP, the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, strongly supported AB 218 and have cautioned victims not to rush toward this option as a settlement for their claims. SNAP has issued a statement highlighting the fact that the California’s dioceses compensation programs began just six days after the passage of the AB 218. The SNAP statement reads in part:

“We believe that the best way to expose wrongdoing and enforce accountability is for crimes to be made public and for punishment and compensation to be meted out by courts, not the institutions that allowed the wrongdoing to happen in the first place. Survivors deserve a chance to have their day in court and shed light on their abuse, and that can only happen when statutes of limitations are reformed, civil windows are opened, and bishops are held accountable in courts of law.”

Our firm has represented hundreds of childhood sexual abuse victims by Catholic clergy and others over the past 20 years. We would advise victims to be very cautious before believing that the Catholic dioceses of California are looking out for the well-being of victims with this program. The bishops spent millions to try to defeat this legislation and they continue to want to sweep this scandal under the rug.

The relative ease of seeking recovery through a victim’s compensation fund may seem appealing to priest abuse victims, but there are numerous pitfalls that far outweigh any potential benefits. The biggest risk and drawback for victims is the fact that these funds will have a fixed monetary ceiling that is established by the diocese establishing the fund without regard to the expected or actual number of claims made. Therefore, the more claims that are made, the less money that can be allocated to each claim, no matter how horrible the abuse suffered by the individual claimant or how much the diocese facilitated the abuse by protecting the perpetrator priests.

If the Catholic dioceses of California truly cared about the well-being of victims and were seeking reconciliation, why didn’t they create a compensation fund years ago when they first learned about the broad extent of priest sexual abuse, instead of delaying until now when victims will finally have access to civil justice in California?

Victims should not agree to any offer from the fund unless and until they have spoken with a lawyer experienced in representing victims of Catholic clergy sex abuse.

Attorney Irwin Zalkin is founding partner of the Zalkin Law Firm, which has offices in San Diego and New York. The firm has represented victims of abuse by members of religious and other organizations, including the Catholic Church, foster care homes, the Boy Scouts, recovery homes and foreign student exchange programs.