California abuse survivors of Catholic priests can seek compensation

The Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa is turning to a new, in-house program to compensate victims of child sex abuse as six California dioceses join forces on a separate effort.|

Victim compensation program

For more about the Diocese of Santa Rosa's victim compensation program email Julie Sparacio, or call 707-566-3308.

Roman Catholic bishops in six of California’s 12 dioceses Tuesday announced the formation of a new reparations program for survivors of child sex abuse by diocesan priests.

The Santa Rosa diocese is not among them.

Instead, local church officials will handle any future misconduct claims using an in-house protocol developed over recent months.

That way, clergy abuse victims can request compensation directly from the church, rather than through the third party that will handle the multi-diocesan program expected to debut this fall.

Santa Rosa’s new Victims’ Compensation Program was quietly announced in the most recent edition of the North Coast Catholic as a more formalized version of an existing approach through which the Northern California diocese has previously provided counseling and compensation to survivors, officials said.

“Anyone who has not come forward is encouraged to come forward,” said Julie Sparacio, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, which stretches from Sonoma County along the coast to the Oregon border.

The new program is an extension of ongoing efforts by the diocese to bring healing to those who have been abused by clergymen bestowed with spiritual and institutional authority.

But it was developed with the knowledge that several other California dioceses were working with nationally known mediators Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros on a larger compensation fund similar to programs already operating or about to launch in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Colorado.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the dioceses of Fresno, Orange, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego, which combined serve 80% of the state’s Catholic population, are participating in the new program. But given its relative size, the likely number of victims and the role that Sparacio’s office would play in providing the names of prospective contacts, many already known to her, officials in the local diocese could not “justify the enormous expense” of a professional firm, representatives said.

“We’re a small diocese with limited resources,” said diocesan attorney Dan Galvin, who serves as an advisor to the Diocesan Review Board. “We thought our resources could be better spent doing what we were already doing informally, more formally.”

Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa was not available for comment Tuesday, but wrote in the May North Coast Catholic that the decision to provide an “ordered pathway” to help those who have suffered “is a sign of the ongoing willingness of the Diocese of Santa Rosa to deal with the serious problems which have occurred in the past.”

“It is my founded hope that the Protocol prepared by the Diocese will strengthen the message to victims of childhood sexual abuse that: we have heard you, we believe you, we affirm you in your trauma and we want to help with a healing process,” he wrote. Those who already have received part of some $31 million in settlements paid out by the Santa Rosa diocese would not qualify for compensation, church officials said.

Any accusations raised against a practicing priest also would take a different course, involving suspension of the accused clergyman and law enforcement investigation before the church would conduct any investigation or take internal action of its own.

But in cases where an accuser can provide credible information of abuse, the church wants to work out “appropriate compensation,” Vasa wrote.

The resurgent issue of child sex abuse in the Catholic church has proved explosive over the past year, provoked in large part by a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed evidence of abuse involving more than 1,000 children by 300 priests and institutional efforts to cover it up.

Numerous state investigations of the church and its handling of child sex abuse cases have followed, including one in California by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who earlier this month instructed Catholic dioceses in the state, including Santa Rosa, to preserve documents related to past child sex abuse cases.

Vasa has frequently voiced sorrow over the lasting trauma suffered by survivors of sexual abuse, as well as the injury to parishioners and the church caused by the individual misconduct.

He has sought to be bring healing and restore confidence in the church through a series of steps.

In January, he released a list of 39 priests and deacons credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, following the lead of several other California bishops. Two names have been added to the list since.

Sparacio said she’s been contacted by more than a dozen people since January, most of them victims of priests on the list, though a few were abused by people outside the Santa Rosa diocese.

She said they would be the first to be contacted about the new compensation program.

Patrick Wall, a former Catholic priest who works out of Orange County as an advocate for a law firm specializing in clergy abuse cases, said experience with compensation programs in other states suggests the new California program will expose additional abusers who have previously escaped notice.

But it also may allow the church to settle cases more cheaply than if the state Legislature reopens a window for survivors to file cases that are past the statute of limitations.

He also said the church is only held accountable if the names of the abusers are made public.

The Catholic church in California already had paid out close to $1.5 billion in compensation to thousands of survivors over the past two decades, according to Steve Pehanich, a representative for the California Catholic Conference.

Victim compensation program

For more about the Diocese of Santa Rosa's victim compensation program email Julie Sparacio, or call 707-566-3308.

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