Harrisburg diocese reaches bankruptcy settlement, pledges further actions for abuse survivors

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Harrisburg Diocese Bankruptcy
Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg, Pa., addresses members of the media at a news conference in Harrisburg Feb. 19, 2020, to announce that the diocese has filed for bankruptcy and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. A federal bankruptcy court approved Feb. 15, 2023, a reorganization plan for the diocese. (OSV News photo/CNS file,Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness)

(OSV News) — A federal bankruptcy court approved a reorganization plan for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Feb. 15. The settlement follows litigation from abuse survivors in the wake of the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report into child sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of Harrisburg said in a Feb. 15 statement that he made “the difficult decision” to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protections three years ago “as a means of stabilizing the diocese’s financial situation, while at the same time allowing us to make restitution to survivors of clergy sexual abuse and continue our ministries.”

The bishop’s statement noted the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania confirmed Feb. 15 the “Joint Plan of Reorganization for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg,” concluding the three-year process begun Feb. 19, 2020.

Bishop Gainer said the journey was “a difficult, emotional process for many, most especially the abuse survivors who served on the Tort Claimants Committee and those that aided them in their duties.”

“I particularly wish to express my gratitude and appreciation to these survivors,” he said. “You represented all survivors who presented a claim during this process and the difficult work you completed was vital in achieving a resolution. While it is my prayer that the trust established through this process will bring some level of restitution for the abuse each survivor has endured, I acknowledge that no amount of money will ever make reparations for these horrific and sinful acts.”

Bishop Gainer said, “The diocese recognizes and is fully committed to addressing the horrors of clergy abuse,” pledging to continue to make mental, spiritual and pastoral counseling available to survivors in addition to the establishment of the trust.

Bishop Gainer also called the process “very difficult for our clergy and the faithful as well,” thanking both for their “grace and an understanding that this path was the only path forward at that time.”

As a result of the settlement, the diocese will establish an $18.25 million Survivor Compensation Trust for abuse survivors. It will provide $7.5 million to that fund, with settling insurers contributing $10.75 million. The diocese’s statement said 60 abuse claims were made during the bankruptcy process.

However, an organization representing abuse survivors cast the settlement as insufficient, describing it as “more about protecting assets and secrets than it is providing restorative justice to adults who were traumatized as children by church employees.”

“The simple fact is that monetary reparations for a lifetime of bearing the pain of abuse is pittance in the grand scheme of things, especially given the vast wealth of the church,” SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement.

SNAP, a group that provides support for victims of sexual abuse in religious and institutional settings, called on church officials to update their lists of abusers to include any names learned during bankruptcy proceedings, and provide local law enforcement with “all information related to sex offenses, regardless of the abuser’s status.” It urged on church officials to put all resources at their disposal, including diocesan websites and parish bulletins, “to ensure that parishioners are aware of these updates and to encourage survivors to come forward and report to police.”

SNAP also called on law enforcement officials to also “develop novel ways” to help abuse survivors obtain justice and to prevent future abuse, saying “no institution can effectively police itself.”

Shaun Dougherty, SNAP board president, told OSV News Feb. 15 the faithful and the general public are “really getting desensitized” by such settlements. He maintained the bankruptcy process “actually works in favor of the church and all the organizations, like the Boy Scouts, that use it to shield themselves from something.”

“They’re not just doing it to protect assets and money, but also their reputation,” Dougherty said, alleging the process allows organizations to protect abusers and shield them from criminal charges.

Dougherty said without appropriate transparency and accountability for sex abuse, a community where an abuser “is still living, residing, hanging out with children” may be “completely unaware.”

“I’m happy the survivors are able to finally put this chapter of their life behind them,” he said. “But it really is my feeling as a survivor, and having the experience of knowing thousands of survivors, that [the bankruptcy] is more protective of the church. This benefits the church way more than it benefits the survivors.”

The 2018 grand jury report found that more than 300 priests and other church workers abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period, starting in 1947, in six of the state’s eight dioceses, including Harrisburg. The others were Allentown, Scranton, Pittsburgh, Greensburg and Erie.

The report rocked the faithful. A 2019 Gallup Poll found that 37% of U.S. Catholics said news of the abuse led them to question whether they would remain in the Catholic Church, up from 22% in 2002. A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 27% of U.S. Catholics said they scaled back Mass attendance, and 26% said they reduced the amount of money they donate to their parish following the reports of sexual abuse and misconduct.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were not included in the grand jury report as they had been the subjects of earlier investigations.

Bishop Gainer pledged the Harrisburg Diocese to action beyond the bankruptcy settlement, saying they’ll “work tirelessly so all survivors know that the church cares for them.”

“I will never be able to adequately express my deep sorrow for the pain these survivors have endured,” the bishop said. “All I can say is how profoundly sorry I am, and I pray that our actions will demonstrate our commitment to supporting you in your path to healing.”

Kate Scanlon and Gina Christian are national reporters for OSV News. Follow them on Twitter @kgscanlon and @GinaJesseReina.

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