Allentown Diocese has paid $16 million to abuse victims

The Morning Call, Pennsylvania/November 24, 2020

By Peter Hall

The Allentown Diocese has paid nearly $16 million to victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, it reported Tuesday, as the program to compensate victims draws to a close.

The payments, totaling $15.85 million, were made to 96 abuse victims through the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, according to a final report by an independent committee appointed to oversee the program.

Allentown was among seven Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses to establish compensation funds in the wake of a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed efforts to hide decades of sexual abuse by hundreds of priests.

Administered by Washington, D.C., attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who is also overseeing compensation programs for abuse victims in other dioceses, Allentown’s program accepted applications from April to September 2019, receiving 106, the diocese reported.

Six of those applicants rejected offers totaling $1.18 million, three were deemed ineligible and one offer remains outstanding, the report says. The payments averaged about $165,000 per victim and came with a stipulation that those accepting them would not sue.

Although the offers were less than what victims might obtain in a successful lawsuit, the program has provided people with an opportunity to have their stories heard and validated, said Camille Biros, business manager from the Feinberg Law Firm.

“It’s a relief for them and they’re grateful for that,” Biros said. “Everyone agrees that no amount of money is ever going to make them whole or give them closure.”

The payments varied depending on the severity of the abuse, Biros said. The largest settlement was $400,000, paid to David Zernhelt, who was abused by two Allentown Diocese priests named in the grand jury report. The Morning Call generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Zernhelt agreed to be named.

He said last year that he applied for compensation through the program because he feared state legislators would not change a law that prevents victims of childhood abuse from filing lawsuits after turning 30. He accepted the offer not because it made him wealthy but because it provides a positive starting point to put his abuse behind him, Zernhelt told The Associated Press.

Allentown Diocese spokesman Paul Wirth said every claim that resulted in a settlement offer involved an accusation against a priest already known to the diocese as credibly accused. A small number of claimants made accusations against priests who had not previously been the subject of abuse allegations. None of those allegations has been proven credible and the program administrators did not offer compensation, Wirth said.

Among the accused priests not previously known to the diocese, all but one were dead, Wirth said.

The living priest who was newly accused, the Rev. Robert J. Potts, was removed from ministry, and law enforcement was notified. The Schuylkill County district attorney’s office determined the allegation was too old to prosecute and did not investigate. An independent investigation by a private firm employed by the diocese determined Potts did not commit the alleged abuse. Last spring, Potts, then 87, was returned to ministry, according to a statement from the diocese.

Retired U.S. District Judge Edward N. Cahn served as chairperson of the independent oversight committee created to ensure the program was autonomous from the diocese. Cahn declined to discuss the program Tuesday, saying the report speaks for itself. The committee also included former state Rep. Richard Grucela and Lisa Garbacik, director of human resources and Title IX coordinator at Cedar Crest College.

The grand jury report revealed sexual abuse accusations against 301 priests in six dioceses, who abused about a thousand children over several decades. The report named 37 priests from the Allentown Diocese, which includes more than 252,000 Catholics in Berks, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton and Schuylkill counties. The diocese added another 15 or so to the list.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese were the subjects of separate grand jury investigations. Philadelphia also established a compensation fund, but Altoona-Johnstown said it could not afford to do so after earlier reaching settlements with several victims.

The Feinberg firm administered compensation programs for the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Pittsburgh, Scranton and Erie dioceses. Biros said the five dioceses including Allentown received more than 1,500 claims and had resolved 976, for a total of $135 million.

Allentown set aside millions for its fund, promising the money would not come from parishes or donations. The fund was built on available cash, borrowed money and the sale of assets, but the diocese did not specify how much money was available.

The near conclusion of the compensation program does not end the diocese’s potential liability. Several people who claim they were sexually abused by members of the clergy have sued the diocese in Pennsylvania and New Jersey courts.

New Jersey created a two-year window for people who were abused as children to file lawsuits that would normally be barred by the statute of limitations.

An appeals court created a similar opportunity last year for Pennsylvania clergy abuse victims whose claims would normally be too old. It ruled in a lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese that a woman claiming she was abused as a child could try to persuade a jury that church officials’ silence about the priest amounted to fraudulent concealment.

Because of that ruling, filing a lawsuit within two years of the grand jury report — and arguing the report alerted the victim to the church’s knowledge of a priest’s past abuses — could prevent such a case from being dismissed on statute of limitations grounds. The decision, which is under review by the state Supreme Court, prompted a wave of lawsuits against Pennsylvania dioceses including at least 20 against the Allentown Diocese.

Court records show a lawsuit filed by Juliann Bortz, whose abuse by the Rev. Francis Fromholzer when she was a freshman at Allentown Central Catholic High School in the 1960s was described in the grand jury report, was discontinued in May.

Bortz claimed the grand jury report revealed to her that the diocese engaged in a smear campaign to discredit her and her family when she tried to report Fromholzer in the 1980s. Wirth said he could not comment on the resolution of the case, and Bortz’s lawyer did not return a call.

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