In an effort to limit liability, people who were abused as minors by Catholic clergy will be able to apply for compensation from the church instead of pursuing their claims through the court system under an independently run program unveiled Tuesday.
Similar to four other states, the Independent Compensation Program for Victim-Survivors of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests will be administered by independent mediators and overseen by a board whose members include former Gov. Gray Davis and Maria Contreras-Sweet, former chief of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Diocese of Fresno is among six California Catholic dioceses participating in the program expected to launch this fall and remain open for six to nine months. Others are the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego. Six other dioceses in the state have opted not to participate in the program, which will cover an estimated 80 percent of the state's Catholics.
The announcement has come as allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Bakersfield and elsewhere within the Fresno diocese have sparked anger and controversy among local Catholics and organizations that advocate for victims of abuse by clergy.
The program has been under discussion among California's bishops since November, according to the news release. There is no statute of limitations, meaning accusations will be treated the same regardless of how long ago the offenses took place, and no restrictions regarding the immigration status of victims. Compensation offers are expected to be made within 90 days of a claim being completed by a victim of abuse.
Supporters say the dioceses will have no role in running the program and won't be able to appeal the dollar amounts it awards. Victims who participate in it will be free to reject compensation offers and at any time may speak publicly about their experiences.
Perhaps the biggest trade-off for participants is they will be barred from taking their claims to court if they accept the compensation offered through the program.
Victim advocacy group's response
SNAP, The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, offered tepid support for the program. In a news release, the organization suggested that the current judicial system offers a more open process, giving victims their day in court.
In addition to calling for church abuse victims to help craft the program, the group urged victims to report crimes to law enforcement regardless of their participation in the new program.
"While we appreciate the gesture, we hope that survivors in California will carefully consider their options before signing on," the release stated.
Administrators Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros have run other compensation programs, including one for victims of the Deep Horizon oil spill and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. They have also administered church abuse-victim programs in Colorado, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Since fall 2016, Biros said, the New York and Pennsylvania programs have netted more than 1,700 cases, three-quarters of which have been resolved. Payouts total $250 million to date, she said, with the highest single award coming to $500,000. Only about half a dozen compensation offers have been rejected by victims, she added.
Compensation offers, she said, are based on factors such as type and frequency of abuse, as well as the use of drugs, alcohol and pornography to ply victims. Corroborating evidence can include medical, therapy and police records, she said, adding the programs insist victims file reports with law enforcement agencies.
Program administrators will be open to revisiting proposed compensation amounts at victims' request as new evidence comes forward, she said. But generally, settlement offers are based on national-average court awards for similar types of offenses, she said, emphasizing consistency of offer amounts is a goal of the program.
"This is one more avenue for them to pursue and allow them to try to put this behind them," Biros said, "whereas a court decision would take several years to get through."
'A path forward'
Former Gov. Davis said in a written statement he commends the church for voluntarily offering what he considers the most comprehensive program of its kind.
"While not for everyone, this independent program will offer a path forward for victims preferring a confidential, non-adversarial process versus a public trial," he stated.
The news release announcing the program said California Catholic dioceses have paid nearly $1.5 billion to thousands of priest-abuse survivors during the last two decades.
SNAP recently distributed a list of eight priests with Kern County connections that it says have been accused of sexual abuse.
A spokeswoman for the church's Fresno diocese, which in recent months has placed two priests on leave pending investigations of abuse claims against them, declined to comment on the new compensation program, saying it wants to preserve the initiative's independence.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, issued a news release quoting Archbishop José H. Gomez as supporting the program.
"I realize, as you do, that no program, however well-intentioned and well-designed, can repair the damage done to victims and their families," Gomez stated. "But I pray that this new program might provide another avenue toward healing and hope."