Broken Faith: Inside The Catholic Church’s Plan To Quietly Pay Survivors Of Sexual Abuse

When Paul Barr was 16 years old, a priest asked him to the rectory of the Sacred Heart church in Niagara Falls, New York. Barr remembers that the priest handed him a beer, suggested that he lie down, and then touched his groin.

Four decades later, Barr learned that his story was worth $45,000.

In January, Barr got the offer from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, as he sat at his desk at his law firm a few blocks from the Canadian border. Barr was prepared for disappointment; he was accustomed to the Catholic Church letting him down. But he still felt betrayed by the offer.

“I was just full of resentment. But I don’t want to let that resentment eat me alive,” the 54-year-old personal injury attorney said. So, after the call, he got back to work.

Barr said he didn’t really care about being compensated for the alleged abuse. Instead, he wanted answers, accountability, maybe an apology. The alleged assault had followed him throughout his life. In high school, Barr got into trouble and struggled to graduate. Later, while working as a firefighter, he worried that the others would leave him behind in a burning building.

“It taught me not to trust,” he said. “I couldn’t look up to anybody. I always expected that I could be taken advantage of. If the priest could do that, after using his position and powerfully manipulating me, then anybody could.”

He couldn’t shake that feeling. Then, in 2018, Barr heard that the Buffalo diocese was launching a new program to compensate survivors of clergy sex abuse, one of several similar initiatives that dioceses across New York have turned to as their legal problems grew.

For survivors, many of whom have spent decades coping with trauma, the programs are a way to finally be acknowledged by the Church that wronged them. The claims are not subject to statute of limitations laws — which prevent many survivors from suing. The programs do not require the kind of evidence needed in a courtroom, and are overseen by independent administrators hired by the diocese. The administrators decide how much money, if any, a survivor should receive as compensation.

But the programs amount to a kind of private justice: At a time when states are considering rewriting statute of limitations laws, sexual assault survivors must sign away their right to ever sue the Church. There is generally no requirement that the Church admit guilt and there’s no guarantee that evidence of sexual abuse will ever be made public, or that anyone in the Church will be held accountable after the settlements.

The compensation programs are now spreading outside New York, at a time that’s convenient for the Church. As the reckoning of both #MeToo and clergy abuse scandals widen, the prospect of opening up statute of limitations laws could be financially catastrophic for the Church and further expose the scope of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“They are trying to siphon off survivors who might otherwise be eager for statute of limitations reform and might actually file claims,” said Terry McKiernan, the co-director of the watchdog group Bishop Accountability.

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