ERIE — The Diocese of Erie formally has opened the application process to pay benefits to the survivors of sexual abuse committed by clergy or laypersons of the diocese.
Applications for the fund will be accepted for six months — now through Aug. 15, according to the diocese.
The full protocol of the Independent Survivors’ Reparation Program is now available on the website of the fund administrators at ErieDioceseISRP.com. The diocesan website, ErieRCD.org, also provides a link to the independent site.
According to the diocese, Bishop Lawrence T. Persico has sent a personal letter to each of the abuse survivors who personally reported abuse and whose current address is known to the diocese, informing them they will receive information regarding the fund.
The fund administrators also have sent a packet to each of the survivors with the same information that is now available online. Survivors who did not receive a letter or who have never come forward before may to submit a claim through the website, according to the diocese.
No money to pay compensation to sexual abuse survivors will come from donations made by parishioners or from the diocese's annual Catholic Services Appeal, the diocese said.
To finance the fund, a new line of credit has been obtained by the Diocese of Erie and secured by the diocese’s own historic investments, according to the diocese.
Persico isn't releasing the amount of money in the fund based on advice from Kenneth Feinberg, who has been hired to independently administer the fund, according to Anne-Marie Welsh, spokeswoman for the diocese.
The fund will be managed wholly independent of the diocese with Feinberg and his team conducting an independent assessment of each submitted claim, making compensation offers in a victim-centered and transparent distribution process for prompt payouts, according to the diocese.
Feinberg has served as special master for Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund, New York diocesan abuse funds and Penn State University's compensation fund for victims in the child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky.
Persico said establishment of the fund is part of his and the diocese’s efforts to address the emotional, psychological and pastoral needs of survivors of abuse and provide "some measure of justice, closure and validation for the terrible acts that victims endured."
Victims who decide the settlement offer isn’t sufficient can refuse to take it and retain their right to sue if the Legislature opens a window for civil lawsuits in old child sex crime cases, said Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank focusing on child protection. Once a victim takes the settlement offer from the fund, he or she will have lost any right to sue, Hamilton said.
In August 2018, a state grand jury report identifying more than 300 priests in six of the state’s dioceses who were credibly accused of child sexual abuse was made public.
David Poulson, who served as a Roman Catholic parish priest in Crawford County until February 2018, was charged last spring by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General as part of that statewide grand jury investigation.
Last month, Poulson was sentenced by Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to 2 1/2 to 14 years in state prison for sexually abusing two boys while in active ministry.
Poulson pleaded guilty in October 2018 to one felony count each of corruption of minors sexual in nature and endangering the welfare of children in connection for a sexual assault on one boy and an attempted assault of another boy.
Poulson stepped down as parish priest at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs in mid-February 2018 after the diocese announced it received credible allegations of sexual abuse of children by Poulson.
In addition to what is outlined in the protocol, Persico said case files will be made available to victims and victims can get free legal advice.
Any survivor who wishes to view the diocese’s files concerning his or her case may do so by requesting relevant files directly with diocese’s independent investigators at ErieRCD@KLgates.com.
"We know some people have voiced concerns that without a public trial, information about the past will still be hidden," Persico said in a statement Friday. “That is not the case in the Diocese of Erie. Survivors will have the right to see files pertinent to their cases.”
Claimants may apply to the fund with or without the assistance of a private attorney, but free legal help is available, the diocese said.
The diocese has asked its independent investigators at the K&L Gates law firm to arrange for lawyers outside of its firm who are will to serve on a pro bono, or free, basis.
The list of third-party lawyers volunteering to advise survivors at no charge may be obtained by emailing ErieRCD@klgates.com.
Every effort will be made to match lawyers who are geographically near the survivor and/or the area where the abuse occurred, according to the diocese.
The diocese said the feasibility of launching a second phase of the fund, which would potentially compensate estates of deceased victims and victims of non-diocesan personnel such as religious order priests, depends in large part on any future contributions by insurance companies and religious orders.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.