Reckoning continues over Catholic clergy abuse
A New Jersey diocese’s $87.5 million settlement plan prompts calls for more transparency
A Roman Catholic diocese in New Jersey agreed Tuesday to pay $87.5 million to resolve clergy abuse claims from some 300 alleged victims. The cash settlement signifies one of the largest payouts involving U.S. Catholic churches accused of mishandling clergy sexual abuse allegations.
If the deal is approved by a U.S. bankruptcy judge, the Diocese of Camden will allot money to alleged survivors — up to $290,000 each, according to victims’ attorneys Jay Mascolo and Jason Amala — through a trust over the course of four years.
Abuse advocates and attorneys said the settlement is a positive step. But the Diocese of Camden has avoided transparency by keeping documents sealed that detail the nature of the accusations and how church leaders handled them. Victims’ attorneys said they expect court challenges to continue since the settlement includes an unusual provision allowing claimants to sue insurance companies separately.
In an April 19 letter, Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan said the settlement represents the “final financial step” for the 85-year-old diocese’s more than 60 parishes in a yearslong process addressing the scandal.
“I want to express my sincere apology to all tho//./.?..?.///////se who have been affected by sexual abuse in our diocese,” Sullivan said. “I pledge my continuing commitment to ensure that this terrible chapter in the history of the Diocese of Camden … never happens again.”
The diocese’s settlement amount exceeds a nearly $85 million deal in 2003 involving Catholic clergy in Boston. It is lower than agreements in Oregon and California, including a $660 million settlement in 2007 by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with more than 500 alleged victims.
The Diocese of Camden filed for bankruptcy in 2020, in part because of an influx of abuse claims after New Jersey expanded the civil statute of limitations. The law retroactively applied changes that allowed childhood victims to sue until they reached age 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the acts against them caused them harm. The state’s previous statute of limitations was age 20 or two years after first realizing the extent of the abuse.
Terry McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which runs the largest database of public reports on the Catholic abuse crisis, said church leaders who acted with impunity are feeling public and legal pressure to make reforms.
“There are remarkable tensions you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago, but almost all of the change has come from the outside,” said McKiernan. “The church really has been forced by our legal system to make all the changes it has made.”
McKiernan co-founded BishopAccountability.org in the Boston area in 2003, one year after The Boston Globe reported that church leaders had systematically moved pedophile priests from parish to parish despite repeated accusations of sexual abuse. McKiernan’s work documenting accused Catholic church leaders began in part because a family in his parish reported that their son was abused by former priest Paul Shanley, a convicted rapist who died in 2020.
McKiernan said abuse cases involving the Diocese of Camden have been in the courts since the 1990s. Yet little is known about how church leaders handled the accusations dating back to the 1950s. The settlement does not provide details about what happened to the 300 alleged victims, according to attorney Jeff Anderson, who represents 74 claimants.
Catholic dioceses hold sealed internal records that have come into play in numerous abuse settlements. McKiernan said these documents include intake reports from victims, details about how the diocese handled accusations, and records of whether an accused priest was moved to a different parish or sent to a treatment center.
“Everyone would like to see documents from the Diocese of Camden,” McKiernan said. “Whether the settlement negotiations result in more transparency and the release of internal documents remains to be seen.”
In 2019, New Jersey’s five Catholic dioceses listed more than 180 priests — including 56 based in the Diocese of Camden — who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children over the course of decades. Dioceses in more than two dozen other states made similar disclosures after a landmark grand jury report in Pennsylvania in 2018 prompted state and federal investigations.
Anderson, the attorney, referred to the agreement with the Diocese of Camden as a “partial resolution.” He said the deal uniquely excludes insurers that provided liability coverage for the diocese. This will allow alleged victims to sue insurers separately and potentially obtain more compensation, Anderson said.
Insurance companies involved in other Catholic clergy abuse settlements have often refused to pay the full amount sought by victims and raised questions over whether dioceses were compliant with the terms of their policies. “It’s not that disagreements are arbitrary … but they have gotten more tense and acrimonious in recent years,” McKiernan said.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Camden said the amount parishes will pay as part of the settlement is still undetermined under its bankruptcy reorganization plan. It said no layoffs were expected but it might sell real estate that is not “mission-critical.”
Dozens of Catholic dioceses across the country have filed bankruptcy amid an influx of sex abuse claims. Settlements and monetary awards related to the U.S. Catholic abuse crisis have surpassed $3 billion, according to BishopAccountability.org.
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