There is a sense of relief in Boston, and in the rest of the country as well, now that the Archdiocese of Boston has finally settled the suits filed against it by the victims of sexual abuse. For 19 months, Boston has unfairly been perceived by many people as paradigmatic of the American church’s attitude toward sexual abuse by clerics. No matter what bishops did to address the crisis in other dioceses, until Boston was cleaned up, the church would be portrayed as insensitive and negligent.
There are two important lessons that can be learned from the Boston experience. The first is the importance of new leadership with pastoral sensitivity. Archbishop Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., quickly won the hearts of Bostonians by his open and pastoral approach. The archbishop was willing to meet with victims, he spoke openly with the media, and he made clear that his priority is people. He also won approval with his simple lifestyle and the abandonment of the episcopal palace (something most bishops in other dioceses did decades ago). Archbishop O’Malley could more easily negotiate a settlement with victims and their lawyers because he was a fresh face who was not blamed for what happened to them. Not only were they not angry at him, most trusted him.
But Archbishop O’Malley was not the first bishop to do this. Others had pointed the way, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, Archbishop Harry Flynn in Lafayette, Archbishop Michael Sheehan in Santa Fe, Bishop Donald Wuerl in Pittsburgh and Bishop Wilton Gregory in Bellville. By doing the right thing, they also did the correct thing legally and financially.
The second lesson from Boston is the importance of having a good, experienced lawyer. Too often bishops received their legal advice from insurance company lawyers or from lawyers without experience in handling sexual abuse cases. They were facing experienced lawyers who had litigated hundreds of abuse cases and were experts at manipulating the media. Telling bishops not to talk to victims or the press, not to apologize and not to pay for therapy until a case was settled was not only un-Christian but legally counterproductive. Stonewalling and taking the offensive against victims angered both victims and the public, with the result that victims retained lawyers and juries wanted to punish the church with high damages.
On the other hand, when victims say that their cases are not just about money, they are telling the truth. Many cases have been settled for less money than anticipated, when the bishop agreed to a personal apology to the victim, a public apology to the parish, the removal of the priest from ministry and the establishment of procedures to make sure that such abuse never happens again.
The settlement in Boston is $85 million for 552 suits, with payments ranging from $80,000 to $300,000 depending on the injury. This is a lot of money, but not at all unprecedented when considered on a per victim basis. Boston had a huge number of victims. The payouts are higher than average on the bottom end of the range and lower than average on the top end. Compared with other settlements, a payment of $80,000 is high for a teenager to whom a priest exposed himself. On the other hand, $300,000 is low for a child rape victim. But added to these payments is the cost of lifelong therapy for any victim who requests it, which the archdiocese has also agreed to cover.
There will be relief but no joy for the victims and the people of Boston from this settlement. Money will not heal the victims, and although the settlement had to be made, the consequences are going to be painful for the people of the archdiocese. The cost comes on top of last year’s $10-million settlement with 86 victims of John Geoghan. There is no gold mine under the cathedral, no printing press for money in the chancery. The archdiocese hopes to recoup some of the money from insurance companies and the sale of surplus property. The insurance companies will undoubtedly argue that they are liable for only $20,000 per victim, which is the legal liability limit for nonprofits in Massachusetts. It remains to be seen how the archdiocese will pay this settlement before the end of the year.
It is likely that Boston, whose archdiocesan budget is half what it was two years ago, will experience cutbacks in service similar to those recently announced in the Archdiocese of Louisville after its $25.7 million settlement for 243 lawsuits. In Louisville, church taxes on parishes have been raised, interest rates paid by the archdiocese for money deposited by parishes has been lowered, expenses previously covered by the archdiocese are being pushed on to the parishes, and scholarship funds have been halved. Programs are being closed, people are being laid off, and a high school that had been promised $1.7 million for expansion is not going to receive it. Settlements, however necessary, are going to hurt parishioners, students and the poor who are in even greater need today because of government cutbacks. These people too deserve our sympathy as the latest victims of the sexual abuse crisis.
For earlier editorials on the sex abuse crisis, see: