Saturday, May 18, 2002

Dioceses paid $5.7M in abuse cases


Two priests account for much of cost

By James Pilcher, jpilcher@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greater Cincinnati's two major Roman Catholic dioceses have paid out nearly $6 million to settle claims over alleged sexual abuse by priests over the last two decades and to cover counseling for the victims.

        The Diocese of Covington, which oversees Catholic parishes throughout Northern Kentucky, reported that it had paid out $3.2 million in settlements and for counseling for victims since 1989. Nearly half the money was paid shortly after the 1993 conviction of former priest Earl Bierman on sex abuse charges.

        Diocese leaders said that the settlements could be tied to abuse cases dating as far back as the 1960s.

        The Archdiocese of Cincinnati says it has paid out $2.5 million in settlements over the past 20 years, with the archdiocese's lawyer saying Friday that “a substantial part” of those funds went to settle cases involving abuse by former priest George Cooley. He was convicted in 1991.

        The disclosures are the first time both organizations have revealed how much they have paid out for sexual abuse by their clergy, but officials from both dioceses would not reveal how many individual cases the total settlements cover.

        The amounts are relatively small compared with some of the larger settlements surrounding the major national sex abuse scandals in the church over the past 20 years.

        A scandal in Dallas resulted in a 1998 settlement of $31 million. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that the archdiocese had secretly settled for $1.3 million for a single case in 2000. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has paid at least $13 million to settle 20 suits against one priest convicted on sex charges in 1983.

        And the finance council of the Archdiocese of Boston recently rejected a proposed settlement of $30 million involving 86 people who say they were victims of defrocked priest John Geoghan, who was convicted of sexual abuse charges in January.

        But comparisons are difficult, experts say, especially without knowing how many cases are covered by the total settlement figure.

        “If this is all there is for these two dioceses, it does sound low,” said Richard Sipe, a former priest from La Jolla, Calif. He has written several books and articles about church sex abuse scandals and testifies in victim lawsuits nationally. “It's terrible to say, but the church's credibility is to be called into question here. The record is not very good.”

        The Covington figures were released Thursday to the Enquirer in response to previous requests by the newspaper. Also Thursday, diocesan leaders printed a letter to Northern Kentucky Catholics in the diocese's weekly newspaper The Messenger, saying they wanted to reveal the numbers to them first.

        “We believe the people of the diocese deserve the first and full explanation of the financial impact such misconduct has had on the diocese,” diocesan administrator Rev. Robert C. Wehage and diocesan chancellor Rev. Gerald L. Reinersman wrote in the letter.

        The letter reveals:

        • The diocese's insurance covered $1.8 million in settlements.

        • The diocese's general fund paid out $762,000.

        • The diocese paid $661,000 to cover victims' counseling fees.

        The letter also said that about $1.5 million of the total cost was incurred between 1992-1997. Mr. Bierman was convicted on 25 molestation charges and sentenced to 20 years in 1993.

        Diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said that a connection between the Bierman case and the timing of those settlements “would be a fair assumption,” declining to provide specifics.

        In the separate response to the Enquirer,Mr. Fitzgerald said donations to direct diocesan funds (such as the annual appeal) or for local fund-raising efforts (such as building funds) were not and could not be used for such settlements.

        The letter also said that the $1.4 million paid in uninsured costs from the general fund amounted to about 2.5 percent of diocesan revenues for the 13 years covered.

        This year, only $22,000 has been provided for victim counseling and another $30,000 in insured claims, diocesan leaders wrote in the letter. The Diocese of Covington covers 47 parishes in 14 counties in Northern Kentucky.

"Looking to heal'

        The Archdiocese of Cincinnati covers 227 parishes in 19 counties in southwestern and western Ohio. Officials there said separate figures on what was covered by insurance, and how much went toward victim counseling were not available late Friday.

        A comparison to total archdiocesan revenue also was not available. However, the archdiocese's revenues for fiscal year 2001 were $43.7 million, down from $50.8 million in 2000, according to its annual financial report.

        Spokesman Dan Andriacco said that the archdiocese has paid settlements on cases that local church officials did not necessarily think were true, declining to give specifics.

        “Most people who come to us do not want to sue us — they're looking to heal,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        Archdiocese lawyer Mark Vander Laan said that the Cooley case created several settlements, declining to give specifics. He also said that the last settlement came four years ago.

        Mr. Cooley was arrested and convicted in 1991 on molestation charges that stemmed from several incidents throughout the 1980s. He was thrown out of the priesthood. The archdiocese says the case prompted the local church to rewrite its policies on sex abusers.

        None of the officials from either diocese would comment on how much or little the figures were in comparison to other dioceses nationally or locally.

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