Sexual abuse by priests has done untold harm to innocent children and adolescents who were physically, psychologically and spiritually damaged by people they should have been able to trust and respect. Outrage at these crimes has been directed not only at the perpetrators but also at those church officials who failed to take effective corrective action to protect these children and adolescents. Many dioceses are now turning over to civil authorities the names of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. These authorities will investigate the allegations and determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
But many also want to punish the church, or more specifically those bishops who were responsible for moving abusive priests to new parishes, where they abused again and again. Bishops have also been accused of paying “hush money” to victims. So far, two methods have been used to punish the church for not adequately protecting children. One is suing for multimillion-dollar damages. The other is withholding donations to the diocese.
Before condemning all the bishops, it is important to note that some bishops did act responsibly by removing abusive priests from ministry. And payments to victims were not so much “hush money” as attempts to help victims pay for therapy and rebuild their lives. The amounts were often kept secret because insurance companies demanded it. Insurance companies also preferred to settle out of court because even if they were to win in court, the legal fees could amount to half a million dollars per case. In addition, many of these mistakes were made by bishops who are now retired or even dead. Every new bishop inherits problems his predecessor failed to deal with.
Even so, many Catholics have expressed outrage that their donations are being used to pay millions of dollars to victims of abuse for out-of-court settlements or jury awards. Some bishops have said that the money for such settlements will not come from the parishes but from insurance, diocesan reserves or the sale of property.
Estimates put the total payments since 1985 at $350 million to $1 billion. But no one really knows, because in many cases the court records are sealed. Insurance did cover some of this amount. If the abuse took place before 1985, insurance will help cover the costs. But after a jury imposed a large penalty against the diocese of Lafayette, La., in 1985, practically all insurance companies excluded coverage for sexual abuse from their liability policies. If diocesan reserves or other assets are liquidated in order to cover these costs, then these assets will no longer be available to earn income for future church programs or to be sold to finance future needs. Unless people in the pews come forward with more money, there will be fewer pastoral and social programs.
Some Catholics are so angry with their bishop that they are calling for a boycott of donations to the diocese. Many intend to give to their local parish but not to the bishop. While this might be effective as a short-term tactic to get the bishop’s attention, in the long run it will punish the wrong people. In most cases, the bishop’s annual appeal funds programs like the seminary, Catholic education and Catholic Charities. Boycotting the bishop’s appeal will mean less money for scholarships and lower subsidies for inner-city parochial schools, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other social services. The chancery and the bishop’s office, on the other hand, are normally financed by parish assessments or taxes (sometimes called the cathedraticum), not by the bishop’s appeal. Donors should remember that if they specify the purpose of their donation, both civil law and canon law require that the church respect the intention of the donor. Specifying is better than boycotting.
No one can legitimately object to the church paying for counseling, therapy and whatever is needed to help victims put their lives back together. But multimillion-dollar awards, like the boycotting of diocesan collections, punish the wrong people. Big jury awards make sense as a way to punish profit-making businesses, but they are a very blunt instrument for dealing with nonprofit organizations, which have no stockholders. When the Red Cross, a nonprofit, distributed tainted blood, people were properly outraged, but hitting it with a multimillion-dollar fine would only have further harmed an organization that fulfills a community need. Like the Red Cross, the church has stakeholders, but no stockholders.
The desire to punish is human. But punishing the wrong people is wrong. The church is not just the bishops; it is the people in the pews. There are no deep pockets with unlimited funds. Churches depend on the small weekly contributions from their congregations. Punishing the church means punishing the people of God and those they serve. Justice demands that we find another way.