Record-breaking Catholic sex abuse settlement explained: What it means for the victims
On Tuesday, a settlement was reportedly reached between the Diocese of Brooklyn and four victims of sexual abuse that would pay out a record $27.5 million, nearly $7 million per victim, which represents the largest individual payments for a U.S. Catholic sexual abuse on record.
Michael Barasch, an attorney who has represented hundreds of similar victims of clergy abuse on a pro bono basis, said that the record-setting amount likely came from a need to send a message to the church, and the fact that other church employees should have been able to recognize warning signs.
“In this case, the statute of limitations hadn’t run out and what the church was afraid of was getting hit with even worse punitive damages,” Barasch said. “The church knew that, especially in this day in age of social media and the fact that this has gone on for at least the last 50 years, and maybe even centuries, that it had to do the right thing. This is a gross violation of a power of men who supposedly served God.”
The four victims were abused by Angelo Serrano, a now 67-year-old who taught catechism classes and helped organize other programs at St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s Church in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, according to a report by the New York Times.
The abuse occurred inside the church, in Serrano’s apartment located behind the church and at affiliated after-school programs, and took place between 2003 and 2009 when the boys were between the ages of 8 and 12, according to the Times report.
Serrano is serving a 15-year prison term at the Fishkill Correctional Facility after he pleaded guilty in 2011 to first-degree sexual conduct.
Barasch, whose firm Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson did not take part in this case, stressed that these payouts do not mean the victims will be living a cushy life, noting that most victims have severe psychological trauma that often requires years of therapy, which comes at a high cost.
“This will hopefully allow people to afford a lifetime of care,” Barasch said. “This is certainly not a gift. Most of the victims that I have represented have said that they wished they didn’t get a dime and would rather have a time machine to go back and make sure that this didn’t happen.”
Many of the victims Barasch represents don’t usually stop going to church, he said, but often become advocates for reform.
“There is an overwhelming sentiment that priests should be able to marry,” Barasch said. “They feel that there should be no celibacy, they want to see the church hire more women as priests and they want a lay oversight committee that does a total house cleaning because these allegations have been mishandled for centuries.”
Barasch’s firm has done extensive work with the Brooklyn Diocese Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, a program that was set up by the church in an effort to allow survivors of sexual abuse by priests or deacons of the Diocese to seek financial compensation. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is implementing the program in Brooklyn and Queens.
He explained that this program has helped victims receive compensation for past abuse without having to file a lawsuit, retell their story in court and relive their past drama. Many of the victims who receive compensation through this program, which ranges between $25,000 and $500,000, have cases that are beyond the statute of limitations, which typically expires one year after the victim turns 18.
“The independent reconciliation program is a wonderful thing because it allows those who might not otherwise be able to get help to be made whole again,” Barasch said. “They’ve spent millions. Much more than $27 million.”
“The New York Archdiocese started this program,” Barasch said. “It didn’t have to, and this was long before the revelations about the rampant abuse going on in Pennsylvania came to light, but Cardinal Dolan knew it was the right thing to do. Soon, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and now upstate New York started similar programs.”’
In many cases, payouts were based upon the severity of abuse and the victim’s ability to prove it. Barasch said that to the church’s credit, it kept records of complaints going back decades and often used these complaints to verify victim’s claims.
The four boys involved in the $27.5 million settlement did not have access to the compensation programs, but they did not have to because their lawsuits, which started as two separate suits, were not past the statute of limitations and they had proof that would help them in court.
The Diocese of Brooklyn issued the following statement regarding the settlement:
“The Diocese of Brooklyn has concluded litigation in which it highly contested its role in the sexual abuse of four pre-adolescent boys. The diocese and another defendant have settled these lawsuits brought by the four claimants who were sexually abused by Angelo Serrano at his private apartment many years ago. Mr. Serrano was a volunteer worker at a local parish; he was not clergy or an employee of the Diocese or parish. He is currently serving a prison term for his crimes. For three of the claimants, another defendant is contributing a significant portion of the settlement. The Diocese endeavored to reach this settlement in a way that compensates Mr. Serrano’s victims and respects their privacy. We hope this is another step forward in the healing process for these claimants. The Diocese remains committed to ensuring that its parishes, schools and youth programs remain safe and secure for the young people who are entrusted to our care.”
Update: The Brooklyn Eagle updated this article on Sept. 24 to include a statement from the Diocese of Brooklyn.
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