A New Jersey Catholic diocese has agreed to pay $87.5 million to settle claims involving clergy sex abuse with some 300 alleged victims in one of the largest cash settlements involving the Catholic church in the United States.
The agreement between the Diocese of Camden, which encompasses six counties in southern New Jersey on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and plaintiffs was filed with U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden on Tuesday.
The settlement must still go before a U.S. bankruptcy judge. If approved, the settlement would exceed the nearly $85 million settlement in 2003 in the clergy abuse scandal in Boston, although it’s less than other settlements in California and Oregon.
“I want to express my sincere apology to all those who have been affected by sexual abuse in our Diocese,” Bishop Dennis Sullivan said in a statement. “My prayers go out to all survivors of abuse and I pledge my continuing commitment to ensure that this terrible chapter in the history of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey never happens again.”
Details about what allegedly happened to the roughly 300 victims were not included in the proposed settlement, according to an attorney for some 70 of the victims.
“This settlement with the Bishop of Camden is a powerful advance in accountability,” said Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing 74 of the roughly 300 survivors. “The credit goes to the survivors for standing up for themselves and the truth.”
The alleged sexual abuse occurred from the 1950s into the 1990s, Anderson said, but primarily unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s.
The diocese said the deal calls for setting up a trust, which will be funded over four years by the diocese and “related Catholic entities” to compensate survivors of sexual abuse. Part of the deal also requires maintaining or “enhancing” protocols to protect children.
Abuse survivors who filed a claim in the bankruptcy could get $290,000, according to victims’ attorneys Jay Mascolo and Jason Amala.
The agreement comes more than two years after New Jersey expanded the window of its civil statute of limitations to allow for victims of sexual abuse by priests to seek legal compensation. The legislation lets child victims sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The previous statute of limitations was age 20 or two years after first realizing the abuse caused harm.
The diocese, like others across the country, had filed for bankruptcy amid a torrent of lawsuits — up to 55, according to court records — stemming from the relaxed statute of limitation.
In 2019, New Jersey’s five Catholic dioceses listed more than 180 priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors over a span of several decades, joining more than two dozen other states that have named suspected abusers in the wake of a landmark grand jury report in Pennsylvania in 2018.
Many priests on the lists were deceased, and others were removed from ministry.
The bishop’s homily did not focus on the topic, instead calling priests and deacons to “synodality through our own ministries in collaboration with the different capacities, or different roles, among the People of God… discerning for the direction in which the Spirit wants us to move as a body.”
With an allusion to the language of Pope Francis, the bishop also called his clergy to be “shepherds…realistic yet transcending, not stuck in a specific time or space, and not being shepherds without the smell of the sheep.”
Pope St. John Paul II taught in 1994 “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Church’s canon law say that “only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination,” and that “the ordination of women is not possible.”
But there have been calls from some bishops in recent years for changes to that doctrinal position, and some argue that the Catholic doctrinal position on the prospect of ordaining women as deacons is less definitively stated.
Pope Francis has established two study commissions on the question of whether women might become deacons, one which worked from 2016 until 2018, and the other appointed in 2018.
The groups have considered the function of women identified as “deaconesses” in texts from the third century — at issue is whether such women received a kind of commissioning to serve as extraordinary ministers of baptism and the Eucharist, or whether they might be understood to have received the sacrament of sacred orders.
Francis himself said in 2016 that he did not believe women referred to in the early Church as “deaconesses” had been ordained, but were instead commissioned to assist with the full immersion baptism of other women.
And despite calls to ordain women as deacons during the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, Francis said after that meeting that women “who have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”
But the pope condemned a “reductionism [that] would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.”
While the Vatican’s study commission seems unlikely to change Catholic practice on the issue, several bishops in recent years have expressed support for the prospect of ordaining women as priests, including Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and the president of the German bishops’ conference.
Catholics in Germany participating in the official “synodal way” project voted a preliminary measure of support in February for a call to ordain women as priests as well.
The Hong Kong diocese has not yet clarified whether Chow had in mind the notion of ordaining women as priests or as deacons.
Chow, 62, became Hong Kong’s ninth bishop in December. The bishop was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in July 1994.
Born in Hong Kong, he attended a secondary school staffed by Irish Jesuits before he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate. Chow earned a graduate at Minnesota in educational psychology before he entered the Society of Jesus in 1984. His novitative was in Dublin.
After he was ordained a priest, Chow earned a master’s degree in organizational development at Loyola University of Chicago, and in 2006 finished a doctorate at Harvard University in psychology and human development.
As a priest, Chow served as supervisor of Hong Kong’s Wah Yah college, the secondary school from which he had graduated, until he became Jesuit provincial superior for China in 2017.
The bishop’s appointment came after almost a year of deliberation over his candidacy. He was the third candidate to have received papal approval for the job, but the first to have been publicly announced; the previous two candidates were withdrawn over political concerns prior to public announcement.
Chow met with Pope Francis in March, as the Vatican gears up for a renewal of its controversial “pastoral” agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
The Holy See agreed a deal with Beijing in 2018, and renewed it in 2020, which aimed to regularize the situation of Catholics in China. It has attempted to unify the underground Catholic Church on the mainland with the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, granting Chinese Catholics a measure of civil acceptance in exchange for government involvement in the appointment of bishops.
The agreement, which is set to expire in October, has attracted heavy criticism, with many Catholics and Church watchers questioning the suitability of granting the Chinese Communist Party a say in episcopal appointments while the government continues its genocidal campaign against the Uighur population of Xinxiang Province.
Several Catholic bishops and priests have refused to register with the government, pointing out that doing so requires affirming state supremacy over the Church, and Communist Party dogma above Church teaching.
Those clerics have been subject to a campaign of harassment, arrest and detention, with some bishops disappearing altogether.
Nearly four years into the deal’s implementation, the appointment process for bishops in China has not become noticeably more smooth for Rome: dozens of dioceses remain without bishops, and the Chinese government has taken to announcing the appointment and consecration of its own episcopal candidates, seemingly without the input or approval of Rome.
The news provoked particular outrage as it emerged that the money came from a compensation fund for the victims of sexual abuse, who have so far received only a small fraction of the amount used for the priest’s debt.
What are the revelations?
As far as has become known so far, the diocese initially paid almost €500,000 ($540,000) for the priest to clear his gambling debts.
Since the money was apparently not taxed correctly, a total of €650,000 in income tax, including interest, had to be paid in arrears. The money was said to have been paid from a social fund of the diocese, from which compensation for victims of sexual abuse is also paid.
What’s the reaction?
Johassen Norpoth, spokesman for the council to the German Bishops’ Conference that assists abuse victims, said the archdiocese had been considerably less generous to those who suffered abuse.
Norpoth told Saturday’s Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper that, after years of struggle, 60% of the victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and other church employees, had received less than €20,000.
“Victims of sexual abuse, some of them without a secure income like that of a priest, have been fobbed off with an amount less than 2% of what the church is paying out for a priest who has got into financial difficulties,” Norpoth said.
Maria Mesrian, spokeswoman for the Catholic reform initiative Maria 2.0, said the way the money was paid back had been irresponsible.
She said victims of abuse had been offered “ridiculous sums, while millions were being wasted on an unnecessary religious college or the private gambling debts of a priest,” referring to a previous dispute over the funding of a Cologne religious college.
Church vows no repeat
The archdiocese said the events had taken place in the final years of former archbishop Joachim Meisner, and had been taken over by his successor Rainer Maria Woelki after he took office in 2014.
The archdiocese said such a case could no longer occur in the same way “because we have learned from the case and the contact between the human resources department and the clergy is more intensive and better.”
A lay committee looking into historic child sex abuse in the Portuguese Catholic Church said Tuesday it received witness statements from 290 alleged victims in its first three months of work, with cases involving children as young as two years old.
More than half the reported cases suggest many more victims were involved, said Pedro Strecht, a psychiatrist who heads the Independent Committee for the Study of Child Abuse in the Church.
The six-person committee, which includes psychiatrists, a former Supreme Court judge and a social worker, began its work in January at the behest of the Portuguese Bishops’ Conference. It promises anonymity to anyone who comes forward.
Strecht said the committee had come across signs that church officials, including current bishops he did not name, had sought to cover up abuse.
“It was often a case of moving the abuser from place to place, as if at that time the place was viewed as the key factor, not the actual person,” Strecht said.
The committee said it has asked all of Portugal’s 21 bishops for interviews to discuss its work. Only 12 have agreed to a meeting and five haven’t replied.
The allegations recorded so far relate to abuse against minors aged between two and 17, Ana Nunes Almeida, a Lisbon University sociologist and member of the committee, told a news conference.
There was a wide variety of alleged abuse, she said, ranging from indecent exposure and abuse imagery to penetration.
The alleged incidents happened while minors were in the church’s care, including in associated groups such as the Boy Scouts and Catechism study groups. Most of the alleged victims are male
Retired judge Alvaro Laborinho Lucio said the committee has passed 16 cases to the public prosecutor’s office. He said the statute of limitations had expired on most of the alleged cases, which were reported by people up to 88 years of age.
The youngest person to allege abuse was born in 2009, the committee said.
“Over the years there have been clear situations of serious sexual abuse committed inside the Portuguese Catholic Church,” Laborinho Lucio said.