Legal expenses drained millions from church

The Union Leader/November 17, 2002
By Kathryn Marchocki

The Catholic Diocese of Manchester has spent nearly $2 million during the past 30 years to settle clergy sexual abuse claims, a diocesan official said yesterday.

And its resources to pay off further claims is limited, the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault said of the diocese now in the midst of ongoing settlement talks with 65 men and women who claim in civil suits that they were sexually abused by clerics.

"We are not a bottomless pit of money. There are limits on our resources," Arsenault told the Diocesan Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policy.

While the diocese has not exhausted its resources yet, "we will get close to it," added Arsenault, who is chancellor and the bishop's delegate for sexual misconduct.

The nearly $2 million paid in settlements includes $950,000 the diocese last month agreed to pay to 16 men who were sexually abused by 8 priests.

Arsenault said he has no data with regard to any settlements that may have been made more than 30 years ago.

Besides ongoing settlement talks involving claims brought by 65 men and women represented by Manchester attorney Peter E. Hutchins, another 56 alleged victims who sued the diocese have broken off settlement negotiations. Their lawyer, Mark A. Abramson, said he intends to litigate the cases.

Task force members raised the issue, noting many concerned Catholics said they want financial disclosure from the church - particularly with regard to civil settlements paid to clergy sexual abuse victims.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," task force chairman Donna P. Sytek said. People said "they are not going to put any money in the collection baskets because it is going toward hush money."

Parishes are required to send 0.7 percent of their annual income to the diocese to cover the diocese's total insurance liability, Arsenault said. Settlements made with sexual abuse victims are drawn from this fund, he said.

The diocese will publish its financial statements in next month's edition of Tidings, its diocesan newsletter.

Arsenault also updated the task force on the revised norms and charter adopted by the nation's Catholic bishops in Washington this week.

The document still needs Vatican approval, which is expected by year's end.

The task force is charged with recommending changes to the diocese's current sexual misconduct policy to the bishop in light of these new standards.

The new norms will apply to the 20 diocesan priests removed from active ministry because of past allegations of child sexual abuse, Arsenault said.

The revised norms call for church trials to ensure a priest's right to due process under canon law. They also require diocesan bishops to apply to Rome for a waiver to lift the canonical statute of limitations, which says victims have until age 28 to report their abuse.

Task force members also discussed concerns regarding the reporting of clergy sexual abuse to civil authorities.

Arsenault said the diocese complies with state law that requires reporting of suspected abuse and neglect of minors to civil authorities.

But most complaints of clergy abuse involve people who are legally adults who say they were abused when they were minors, Arsenault said.

While church officials encourage these individuals to report their alleged abuse to law enforcement or the state Division for Children, Youth and Families, the diocese does not do so at this time, he said.

Task force members questioned what moral obligations the diocese has to report allegations of abuse when the alleged victim is an adult and the diocese no longer is legally bound to report to authorities.

Arsenault said it is a "public policy" issue that he is discussing with law enforcement officials, including the state Attorney General's office.

"I would propose that the state law has to change," he said.

Arsenault said he is aware of just one person who reported being abused to the diocese, but has not been willing to contact authorities.

It is a key issue since the nature of child sexual abuse is such that its victims generally are not able to come forward until they are in their 30s and 40s, Arsenault said. And offenders generally tend to abuse more than once, he added.

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