Abuse scandal to cost diocese $3.7 million

Associated Press/May 28, 2004
By Jennifer C. Yates

Pittsburgh -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has agreed to pay $3.7 million to settle claims by nearly two dozen people who alleged they were sexually abused by priests and a school teacher, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said Thursday.

The diocese will put $210,000 of that money into an escrow account to pay for treatment and counseling for the 21 plaintiffs, their attorney, Richard Serbin, said. Sixteen of the plaintiffs had filed a lawsuit against the diocese and its bishops, while five previous claims were also a part of the announced settlement. The cases date back to the 1950s.

"The diocese acknowledges that there are minors who have been harmed and are entitled to be compensated," the diocese said in a news release Thursday evening. "The settlement reflects our deep desire both to aid the healing of victims of clergy abuse and to not incur the inordinate financial burden of lengthy litigation."

An arbitrator on Thursday finished hearing from each plaintiff and will determine how much money from the settlement each will receive. The amounts will range from $50,000 to $400,000.

One of the lawsuits involved a State College man who was a former altar boy. He claimed he was sexually abused from 1975 to 1977 by the Rev. Robert Kelly, who at the time was a priest at Our Lady of Victory Church in State College. Kelly is now pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Philipsburg.

Diocese spokeswoman Sister Mary Parks said the case is one of two in which the diocese has not determined that abuse took place. Those priests are, therefore, being allowed to remain in ministry. The diocese said that if new information is revealed during the arbitration hearings this week, it will again review the cases.

"We decided we were going to settle these cases without getting into these litigious back and forths," Parks said. "Certainly we do admit readily there was harm and damage done to young people."

The suits do not name the priests as defendants because the statute of limitations has expired. Instead, they name the diocese, Bishop Joseph Adamec and his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, claiming that church officials knew about abuse allegations against priests but did too little to prevent future abuse.

"This for all 21 (plaintiffs) ... was just an emotionally difficult experience to reveal the very painful details of the abuse they suffered. But on the other hand, they were treated compassionately by the arbitrator as well as the representative of the diocese at the hearing," Serbin said.

The diocese said it will continue discussions with various insurance companies to recover the cost of the settlement. To provide immediate payment, however, it will use the surplus from the Mutual Aid Plan, the deposit and loan fund for parish savings accounts.

None of the parish deposits are interests will be used, just the investment profits that are owned by the diocese, according to the diocese' news release. Donations to the Annual Catholic Appeal will not be used for the settlements, the diocese stated.

David Clohessy, spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national sex abuse victims group, said he hopes the settlement helps the plaintiffs heal.

"No amount of money can undo the horrible damages these abusive priests and complicit bishops have caused," he said. "Still, a settlement can be a tangible and important sign that crimes were committed, childhoods were shattered, and some degree of accountability has finally been achieved."

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