One of the oldest Catholic dioceses in the United States has announced a settlement agreement to resolve a bankruptcy case in New Mexico that resulted from a clergy sex abuse scandal
By The Associated Press
One of the oldest Catholic dioceses in the United States announced a settlement agreement Tuesday to resolve a bankruptcy case in New Mexico that resulted from a clergy sex abuse scandal.
The tentative deal totals $121.5 million and would involve about 375 claimants.
The proposed settlement comes as the Catholic Church continues to wrestles with a sex abuse and cover-up scandal that has spanned the globe. Some of the allegations in New Mexico date back decades.
The chairman of a creditors committee that negotiated the agreement on behalf of the surviving victims and others said it would hold the Archdiocese of Santa Fe accountable for the abuse and result in one of the largest diocese contributions to a bankruptcy settlement in U.S. history.
It also includes a non-monetary agreement with the Archdiocese to create a public archive of documents regarding the history of the sexual abuse claims, committee chairman Charles Paez said.
“The tenacity and courage of New Mexico survivors empowered us to reach a recommended settlement that addresses the needs of the survivors on a timely basis,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case seeking protection from creditors in 2018.
The settlement still must be approved by the abuse victims. It includes funds from sales or property and other assets, contributions from parishes and insurance proceeds. It does not include settlement of any claims against any religious orders, lawyers for both sides said.
“The church takes very seriously its responsibility to see the survivors of sexual abuse are justly compensated for the suffering they have endured,” John C. Wester, archbishop of Santa Fe, said in a statement Tuesday.
“It is our hope that this settlement is the next step in the healing of those who have been harmed,” he said.
In New Mexico, some 74 priests have been deemed “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children while assigned to parishes and schools by the Archdiocese, which covers central and northern New Mexico.
Established in the 1850s after the Mexican-American War, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe filed for reorganization in late 2018 to deal with a surge of claims. An estimated $52 million has been paid in out-of-court settlements to victims in prior years.
“No amount of money can undo the pain and trauma that our clients and their families have suffered,” Dan Fasy, a lawyer who represented some of the victims, said Tuesday. “But we hope this settlement can bring some form of closure and healing to the abuse survivors we were privileged to represent.”
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 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.”
Donohue made the announcement after NBC News asked him about the $480,000-plus raise over two years that boosted his salary to more than a million dollars a year — and which appeared on the most recent 990 form from 2019 that nonprofits are required to file with the IRS.
“Your information on my salary is incorrect,” Donohue said in an emailed response to a request for documentation that the Catholic League’s board of directors had approved the massive pay hike. “The board decided to grant me an exit compensation — I will be retiring probably in the next few years — and that is why the figure appears to double my salary.”
Donohue, 74, said that under his leadership the Catholic League, which claims to be the nation’s “largest Catholic civil rights organization,” built up its reserves to more than $60 million, “which explains why the board was generous with my exit compensation benefit.”
“We get zero money from the Catholic Church or foundations, and I don’t employ a director of development — I do that job,” Donohue added. “We also have no sugar daddies.”
But experts were skeptical that a board would pay out a retirement package years before a person actually steps down from the position.
Sarah Webber, a professor of accounting at the University of Dayton and an expert on nonprofit fraud who reviewed the organization’s 990 form at NBC News’ request, confirmed that Donohue’s pay increases required the approval of the Catholic League’s board of directors but questioned the explanation that the raise was part of an exit package.
“‘I will be retiring probably’ certainly would not be enough for me to vote as a board member to pay out exit compensation — this sounds like it is more of a possibility than a certainty. Why would the board agree to exit compensation before the exit is planned?” said Webber.
Neither Donohue nor his “watchdog agency” have publicly announced his plans for retirement.
Webber added that 990 forms do not have a separate disclosure for exit compensation. The 990 form does state that the board of directors approves any salary increases after first comparing them to “the salaries of other top management officials at other nonprofit organizations.”
While the heads of big nonprofits that employ thousands of people make million-plus salaries, Donohue runs an operation that has 12 employees, according to the 990 from 2019.
NBC News called or emailed most of the members of the board, including chairman Walter Knysz Jr. and secretary Alan Cheskey, but received no response.
More than 80 percent of the Catholic League’s money comes from public donations, but Donohue’s salary accounted for more than 30 percent of the organization’s expenses, said Webber.
“That seems like a pretty dramatic rise in compensation,” said Brian Marks, who leads the entrepreneurship and innovation program at the University of New Haven. “It raises questions as to the basis for the raise and how it compares to similarly situated nonprofits.”
Marks also noted that the Catholic League claimed on its latest 990 report to have about $50 million in assets. “So the question is what are they doing with all that money,” he said.
A sociologist by training and former teacher, Donohue in 1993 took over leadership of the organization that was founded 20 years earlier by a Jesuit priest in Milwaukee to counter discrimination against Catholics in government and culture.
Quickly, Donohue transformed the sleepy organization into a culture warrior, using his perch to issue fiery denunciations of perceived anti-Catholicism by public figures, ranging from Madonna and Joan Osborne to Sinead O’Connor, as well as mostly Democratic Catholic politicians such as John Kerry, whom Donohue accused of straying from the righteous path.
In years past, Donohue would spend thousands of dollars on ads in the New York City newspapers to attack perceived foes of Catholicism. For example, in 1999 Donohue spent $34,500 for a full-page ad in The New York Times blasting Vanity Fair and its publisher, Condé Nast, for stories that he said unfairly targeted a trio of now dead Catholic icons — Cardinal John O’Connor, Mother Teresa and Pope Pius XII. The headline read: “Condé Nast has a Problem with Catholicism.”
Donohue defended the church when it was accused of protecting pedophile priests, wrongly insisted the sexual abuse of children was a “homosexual” problem and drew nationwide condemnation by insisting that “Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity.”
With his gruff New York City accent, Donohue quickly became a fixture on cable TV programs, including MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” and the public face of a conservative brand of Catholicism. But while Donohue has often been branded a political conservative, he did not hesitate to go after Republican televangelists who criticized his church.
MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.
Donohue’s high salary, along with his high-profile attacks on public figures for alleged anti-Catholicism, have long made him a lightning rod for critics who said he does little to justify being paid that kind of salary.
“The Catholic League’s main activities these days seem to be placing shrill op-eds by William Donohue in right-wing clickbait sites, publishing a poorly designed newsletter and issuing hysterical and utterly predictable press releases screaming about anti-Catholicism whenever anyone dares to disagree with a political position held by the Catholic bishops,” said Rob Boston, senior adviser to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Boston said the Catholic League “has no discernable presence on Capitol Hill” and does not appear to be involved in any grassroots activity besides fundraising.
In fact, the 990 reports from 2017 and 2019 submitted by the Catholic League to the IRS list zero expenditures for lobbying or grassroots activity.
“Donohue may enjoy portraying himself as a honed culture warrior, but his main product is bluster and bile,” said Boston. “While Americans United disagrees with the Catholic League’s position on religious freedom as a sword that can be used to harm others, we are focused on opposing more relevant foes to ensure religious freedom remains a shield that protects everyone’s rights.”
Donohue explained that he handles most of the work that the organization does and has shored up its financial reserves during his tenure at the helm.
“When I took over as president and CEO, we had approximately $400,000 and we were losing about $10,000 to $20,000 a month,” he wrote. “Unlike virtually every CEO, I write 100 percent of the voluminous news releases. I write our monthly journal. I write our direct mail packages — I don’t farm it out to some other party. I write all of our appeals for contributions. I write one book after another. I work 6 days a week.”
Back in May 2010, Joe Feuerherd, who was then the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, dubbed Donohue “Billy the Bully” and accused him of failing to do any “serious research on the impact of antichurch prejudice on the lives of the nation’s 70 million Catholics” while making headlines by railing against the supposed “war on Christmas” and Hollywood Jews.
“It’s good to be William Donohue,” Feuerherd wrote. “For one, there’s money in fighting bigotry.”
At the time, records show, Donohue was making $372,501 in salary and compensation.
Donohue quickly fired back with a rebuttal published that same month by the NCR.
“Like so many other left-wing Catholics, Feuerherd thinks I made too much money,” Donohue wrote. “My goal in life, actually, is to make as much money as Sr. Carol Keehan, who cleared $963,436 last year as president of the Catholic Health Association.”
Donohue, who lives on New York’s Long Island, gets to keep his salary, which eclipsed Keehan’s sometime around 2019 when the Catholic League reported he was paid $1,053,127 in salary and compensation.
That same year, the Catholic League also reported $3.5 million in total revenue, with Donohue’s wages accounting for nearly half of the $2.2 million the nonprofit reported paying in salaries.
The only other salaried person listed on the 990 from 2019 was the organization’s vice president, Bernadette Brady-Egan, who was paid a little less than $340,000 in salary and compensation, according to the form.
That was only slightly more than the $321,900 that Brady-Egan took home two years earlier, according to the 990 form the Catholic League filed in 2017.
In years past, Donohue wrote “Year in Review” reports where he summed up the Catholic League’s activities to combat what he deemed anti-Catholic bias in politics, the media and elsewhere. But there do not appear to be any such reports on the website for 2021 or 2020.
Donohue’s most recent “Special Report” is a defense of Christopher Columbus that’s dated Oct. 11, 2021, and titled “Columbus Bashing Is Unwarranted.” His most recent “news release” appeared on the site Wednesday with the headline “BIDEN IS NOT RUNNING THE WHITE HOUSE.”
The following letter was sent to Bishop Christopher Coyne on Dec. 8:
Why are you waiting for me and other clergy abuse victims to die?
As children at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, we were physically, mentally and sexually abused. In December 2020 you said the following during an interview on the WCAX program You Can Quote Me: “I absolutely believe that children were abused at the orphanage. No one is contesting that at all.” You know that there was abuse, yet you do everything you can to avoid helping the abused.
In 2019, you said the following on Vermont Public Radio: “We don’t have any money, there’s no more insurance, we have very limited unrestricted funds.” If the church doesn’t have funds, it’s because of its own actions to hide the money. You know very well that your predecessor, Bishop Salvatore Matano, worked with the church’s attorneys to put $500 million in diocese assets into individual trusts to protect those assets from lawsuits. At the time, Bishop Matano said his actions were to protect the parishes from “unbridled, unjust and unreasonable assault.” We would argue that the unbridled, unjust and unreasonable assaults were made by clergy against children.
In November of this year, you wrote to Vermont Catholics, asking them to give more to your statewide fundraising campaign called “Christ Our Hope: Building a Vibrant Church,” saying that you had already, in just three months last year, raised $4.4 million of your $10 million goal, with most of that money going to individual parishes rather than abuse victims. Of course, that distribution would also protect those funds from abuse lawsuits against the diocese.
Many individual parishes have closed, yet there is no discussion of using funds from those properties to make atonement or restitution with victims of abuse at the hands of clergy. The property which was home to the former Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington is worth millions. Proceeds from its sale should be used to assist former orphanage residents, to make their lives better, as so many of us were unable to meet our potential due to the way we were abused by clergy during our childhoods.
It is also clear to us that the diocese likely paid millions of dollars to attorneys in its effort to avoid atonement for its sins against victims such as the children of St. Joseph’s Orphanage. I call on you to immediately disclose the amount of money the diocese used to line the pocket of its legal teams, as it should have gone to victims instead.
In the 1990s, Bishop Kenneth Angell settled with many orphanage survivors for the paltry sum of $5,000, and forced them to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to get the funds. Ironically, Bishop Angell was forcing the diocese’s own victims to become part of its cover-up. Many of us were not financially stable at the time and agreed under duress to Bishop Angell’s dictates. Bishop Coyne, you have waived the non-disclosure agreement. Now you need to acknowledge that the abuse suffered by children at the orphanage was worth far more than the $5,000 you paid victims, and re-open that part of the agreements.
I believe that your false statements regarding available funds and your inability to make restitution to abuse victims at the orphanage defy the eighth commandment, which calls for God’s people to be truthful. Clearly, the diocese is more concerned about the almighty dollar than it is about following the will of Almighty God. The only reason that funds are restricted is because the diocese itself restricted them to avoid accountability for abuse by clergy, caused by negligence by the diocese.
Clearly, you and other Catholic leaders are waiting this out, so that your responsibility to victims will disappear when we die. It’s time for the diocese to be accountable for its sins, as it requires the Catholic faithful to do. Please help us while we are still alive.
In 2019 you released a report finally identifying abusive priests from Vermont. You called their sins the “sins of the past.” But, Catholic Bishops nationwide recently released a report saying that there had been 4220 reports of abuse by clergy in the United States during the year ending June 30, 2021. And God only knows how many abuses went unreported. Please stop misleading Vermonters with slogans from lawyers and public relations people. These are not the sins of the past. Your experience as a spokesman for former Cardinal Bernard Law, the mastermind of the Boston clergy sex abuse cover-up, makes you especially adept at public relations. I wish you cared as much about doing the right thing.
All of us will be accountable to God for our actions on Earth. Remember Bishop Coyne, whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do unto me. I hope that during the Christmas season you can find it in your heart to do right by victims of clergy abuse.