Catholic diocese agrees to pay $100 million settlement to hundreds of abuse victims

— The bankrupt Diocese of Syracuse in New York will have to pay at least half out of its own pocket and could dig into funds donated by parishioners to cover most of the remainder.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.

By Corky Siemaszko

The Diocese of Syracuse, New York, has agreed to a $100 million settlement with parishioners who claimed they were preyed on by priests, the biggest payout by a Roman Catholic diocese in the U.S. since at least 2018.

But, for now, not a dime of that money is coming from the six insurance companies that cover the Diocese of Syracuse, lawyers involved in the case said Friday.

Instead, as part of its bankruptcy proceedings, the diocese itself will have to shell out $50 million, the parishes in the diocese will have to contribute $45 million, and other entities aligned with the diocese will pay $5 million, to settle the 411 abuse claims filed by 387 people, the lawyers said.

This means that, when the ushers pass around the collection baskets at Sunday Mass at churches across the Diocese of Syracuse, some of that money could be used to pay the victims, Danielle Cummings, a spokesperson for the diocese, confirmed.

“People do give money to the parishes in the general collection,” Cummings said. “And unless they specify that this donation is going to a special project, yes, it could wind up going towards the settlement.”

That said, Cummings added, the diocese intends to “pursue our insurers” while also looking into financing to pay the diocese’s portion of the settlement.

Also, individual parishes may have to tap their savings and investments, Cumming said.

“Statewide insurers have denied, delayed, and ducked their obligations,” attorney Jeff Anderson, who represented the priest sex abuse victims, said earlier in a statement. “It is yet another example of their nefarious strategies employed across the State of New York and the nation.”

Attorney Cynthia LaFave, who worked on the case with Anderson, and another lawyer involved in the settlement who spoke on background, said the Diocese of Syracuse was carrying insurance designed to protect the church from sex abuse lawsuits.

But because they are still negotiating a final settlement with the diocese, LaFave said she could not identify these insurers.

“Yes, they have carried insurance throughout the years, in fact, they have several insurers,” LaFave told NBC News. “But we’re not allowed to discuss that while we are in the midst of settlement discussions.”

In a statement, the diocese said the insurance companies have yet to reach an agreement with the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, which is a federally appointed body that represents the interests of the victims.

“As we recently completed our third year of mediation, the assigned mediator in the case did not include insurance carriers in this proposal, as they have yet to agree on coverage issues with the Creditors Committee,” the statement said. “The mediator’s priority was to reach a settlement with the Diocese and its entities first and then pursue insurers.”

Bishop Douglas Lucia

In an open letter to his flock Thursday, Bishop Douglas Lucia acknowledged the settlement will be a heavy lift for his diocese.

“I can tell you as shocking as the settlement amount may seem to leaders of our own parishes and Catholic entities, more appalling and heart-rending to me is the pain and mistreatment experienced by the survivors of child and adult sexual abuse at the hands of those they thought they could trust,” Lucia wrote. “I cannot apologize enough for the abuse which happened or for any neglect in dealing with it. This is why the final settlement will include commitments meant to strengthen our safe environment protocols to further ensure the past does not repeat itself.”

Kevin Braney, chair of the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors and a sex abuse survivor, said the settlement is a “significant step forward in the healing process.”

“I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to my fellow survivors and their families, for their endurance as they have patiently awaited this news,” Braney said in a statement to local media.

The proposed settlement, which still requires court and creditor approval, appears to be the largest in the U.S. since the $210 million settlement reached in 2018 by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and 400 sex abuse survivors.

But $170 million of that money was paid out by the Minnesota archdioceses’ insurance companies, according to news accounts from that time.

The largest Roman Catholic priest sex abuse settlement thus far in the U.S. happened in July 2007, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to 508 victims.

Two months later, the Diocese of San Diego agreed in September 2007 to pay nearly $200 million to 144 priest abuse victims, according to news reports.

Those payouts were expected to be paid by a combination of the church’s cash and insurance.

The Diocese of Syracuse filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020 after the state of New York temporarily suspended its statute of limitations to give people who claimed they were sexually abused the chance to sue for damages.

Five of the seven other Roman Catholic dioceses in New York State have also sought bankruptcy protection after they were deluged by lawsuits filed by victims of predator priests.

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