View From Inside The Rochester Diocese’s Sexual Abuse Compensation Program

By Leander James

The Diocese of Rochester, NY, has recently instituted a confidential, non-binding program to compensate sexual abuse survivors of any age who were victimized as a child by an actor within the Diocese of Rochester.  Our team has recently completed the first evaluations within the program.  This blog is meant to give you an insider understanding of what we have learned so far, and how this program compares to other dioceses’ programs within the State of New York.

While most, but not all, dioceses have programs, we have encountered substantial differences between them with the more than 80 cases we have processed in programs around the State of New York.  The Diocese of Rochester Compensation Program (DRCP) differs substantially from compensation programs of other dioceses.  The primary differences we have learned involve:  1) scope of qualifying claims; 2) independence of the claims administrator and 3) the claims process.

First the similarities.

All programs we have encountered have a Claims Administrator that runs the program outside the formal legal process. All are non-binding, meaning the abuse survivor can accept or reject the amount offered by the Claims Administrator. If the survivor accepts the offer, they must give up legal rights. If the survivor rejects the offer, they keep all their legal rights. All programs have one-sided confidentiality, meaning the diocese will maintain confidentiality of survivors and their information, but will not restrict survivors from disclosing publicly what they want to disclose. All programs have six stages: 1) submission of a claim form; 2) a determination if the claim qualifies for the program; 3) claims presentation by the survivor or their attorney; 4) evaluation of the claim; 5) a non-binding determination whether the claimant will be offered compensation and, if so, the amount offered; and 6) acceptance or rejection of the offer. Claimants who are not offered compensation or who reject the offer retain their right to file a lawsuit. Finally, all programs we have encountered have provided meaningful compensation and justice to some, but not all, survivors who have submitted claims. [For a larger discussion of the various compensation programs see our upcoming blog “Do New York State Catholic Compensation Programs Bring Justice and Healing to Child Sexual Abuse Survivors?].

But that’s where the similarities end. Of the more than 80 claims for child sexual abuse survivors we have processed through various diocese programs in the State, eight of these were the first claims to be processed in the DRCP, in January 2019. While we await the offers on those eight cases, we can report that we see important differences in Rochester’s program.

Determination if the claim qualifies.

To its credit, the DRCP so far has a broader acceptance of claims qualifying for its program; it has cast the net of potential justice wider. First, the DRCP has not arbitrarily disqualified claimants based upon when they disclosed their abuse to the Diocese, as some other dioceses have done with only “Phase I” programs. Second, it has not created artificial distinctions that reject claims outright, even when those claims would qualify for a lawsuit. While the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, the Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre have boasted that their programs compensate child sexual abuse survivors, the truth is that in the fine-print of their program criteria they reject outright many abuse survivors whose claims would otherwise be legally recognized, such as abuse perpetrated by a religious order priest who was working for the diocese in a diocesan parish at the time of abuse. [Our team has been working to encourage the Archdiocese, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Diocese of Rockville Centre to remove these arbitrary restrictions. If they don’t, they will be subject to lawsuits under the New York Child Victims Act for these claims.]

By contrast, the DRCP does not appear so far to use artificial distinctions to disqualify outright claims of abuse by actors within the Diocese of Rochester. Indeed, the DRCP allows the Claims Administrator to make his own determination whether such claims will be accepted. This provides for greater potential access to justice within the Program for many survivors who would otherwise be arbitrarily disqualified.

Claims presentation

Unlike programs of the Archdiocese, Diocese of Brooklyn and Diocese of Rockville Centre, whose Claims Evaluator discourages in-person interviews of the survivor, the DRCP Claims Evaluator encourages such interviews. This is a vast difference; for the best evidence of the nature and extent of abuse and its damaging effects on the survivor’s life is the survivor’s own testimony. Any system that evaluates a child sexual abuse survivor’s claim without hearing directly from the survivor, face-to-face, is badly flawed, in our view.

But the DRCP Evaluator, the Hon. Justice Lunn (Ret.), did more than just hear, face-to-face, the statements of our first eight claimants. He came prepared, having carefully reviewed our advocacy packet–our investigative reports, evidence, expert reports and memorandum of the case. He provided a comfortable, confidential and informal setting for our clients to tell their true stories without a time limit. He did so by allowing their counsel (us) to present their case informally, without any person from the Rochester Diocese being present to object or obstruct. He allowed us to ask our clients questions designed to illicit their true stories and to highlight relevant facts and information any evaluator would need. He allowed us to bring material witnesses to the hearing to share their testimonies, including a mental health provider. He was fully engaged, often interjecting with insightful questions aimed at better understanding the nature of the abuse and its effects on the survivor. We can say with certainty that in our experience this interview process provided the survivor with greater dignity, compassion and emotional healing than other programs that do not allow or encourage the survivor to informally testify.

Independence of the Evaluator

The DRCP Evaluator, Justice Lunn, in our professional assessment, has proven to be more independent than evaluators in some of the other programs. This is just our opinion, but we’ve processed many claims and have watched the issue of independence closely. The true independence of the evaluator is critical to a well-functioning program. Without independence, the program risks losing credibility with the survivor and the public.

Tentative Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether these distinctions of the Diocese of Rochester Compensation Program will influence the amount of the DRCP awards; however, it is difficult in our view to imagine that they would not. According to Justice Lunn, the awards will be rendered no later than 30 days from the date of the hearings. The first survivors to ever be evaluated in the DRCP will therefore receive their awards within the coming weeks. Stay tuned.