Friday, 3 December 2010

Delaware Parish to carry $3m of record damages award.

A Delaware court has awarded $30 million dollars in compensation to a victim of clerical sexual abuse. The plaintiff of course, will never see that amount: the guilty priest is personally liable for most of this, and of course does not have it. But in an unusual move which should terrify every church-going Catholic in the US, the jury determined that the local parish where the abuse took place should pay 10% of the award, a hefty $3 million, because it had failed to exercise adequate supervision over its priest. There could be more to pay, too. This amount does not include any punitive damages, which could still be added to the existing sum.
A jury in Delaware on Wednesday awarded $30 million in compensatory damages to a man who said he was sexually abused more than 100 times by a Roman Catholic priest — the largest such award granted to a single victim in a clergy abuse case, victims’ advocates said.
In an unusual outcome, the jury decided that the parish where the abuse occurred, St. Elizabeth in Wilmington, must pay $3 million of the damages, while the perpetrator is liable for the rest. Parishes have previously been held liable in only one or two cases involving abuse by Catholic priests, according to records kept by an advocacy group for victims known as
-(Full report at the NY Times)

Pause a minute, and let that sink in.

At a time when so many churches are being closed for lack of funds, how many parishes could cope with a legal claim for $3 million and more, as well as the legal costs and administrative nightmare of defending  a case? It's not enough to simply say that in practice, the diocese will pick up the tab. They might, if this were the only case. It is not, not by a long chalk.

This is just one defendant. A recent study suggested that possibly half of all parishes may have had an abusive priest working with them in the past. Imagine if half of all parishes in a diocese were to find themselves in the same position as this one?No way could the diocese take on a payment of $3 mil per victim for half their parishes.

Adding salt to the wounds, is that the offences took place many years ago. The parishioners who failed in their supervision of the priest, are probably no longer around. The people who will be acting for the parish, and find ways to produce the money, are almost certainly not the ones who were personally responsible for the lapses of oversight in the first place.

But look on the bright side.  Far too many parish priests simply do not permit any meaningful lay oversight over their activities, and too many parish councils simply step back, and defer to the priests wishes. If they know that courts could find themselves responsible for earlier misdeeds of their priests, they might just be bolder in future, and be less likely in future to simply accept in good faith the priests' reassurances of good behaviour.

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