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Diocese Suspends Abuse Victims' Compensation Program, Citing 'Economic Turmoil'

Among the people affected by the downturn on Wall Street are some alleged victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

The Diocese of Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania, identified in 2018 by the state attorney general as one of the places where clergy abuse had been especially egregious, has announced that it is suspending the processing of victim claims in response to what it calls the "economic turmoil" brought about by the coronavirus.

In February 2019, diocesan authorities in Erie launched an Independent Survivors' Reparation Program for the purpose of compensating people whose claims of abuse were substantiated. The diocese said funds for the compensation were to come from a line of credit secured by diocesan investments. Dozens of claims were subsequently filed, and by December 2019 the program was said to have cost the diocese nearly $12 million.

Most of the victim claims have been processed, but about 40 are pending. Work investigating those claims has now been suspended for at least 90 days, according to a news release from the Erie Diocese. A spokesperson for the diocese, Anne-Marie Welsh, says the suspension was forced by the diocese's investments declining "precipitously."

An independent co-administrator of the Erie compensation fund, Camille Biros, called the suspension "a temporary precautionary measure."

"We are hopeful that upon expiration of the suspension," Biros told NPR, "a decision will be made by the diocese to resume operation of this program."

The Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, a victim advocacy group, called the Erie move "hurtful and deceitful" and said it showed that abuse survivors should seek justice through the courts rather than through church-run programs.

"Every single bishop who is currently offering such a program should immediately set aside and protect the money that has been promised to those who experienced sexual abuse at the hands of diocesan employees," the group said.

No other Catholic diocese has suspended a victim compensation program as a result of the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic, though many have been hurt financially.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.