The Catholic Diocese of Charleston is trying to stick its insurance companies with the bill for millions of dollars in claims paid to nearly 150 people whose lives were damaged by sexually abusive priests - three times the number of victims that was initially reported.
The diocese filed a civil lawsuit in late February demanding that its insurance and indemnity companies reimburse the church for numerous victim payouts it made in connection with a 2007 class-action settlement worth up to $12 million, according to documents obtained by The Post and Courier.
Tucked away in the lawsuit is a list of 148 victims - most called by the pseudonym John or Jane Doe - the type of abuse they endured, the years that abuse occurred, and the individual settlement amounts they received. Those payouts ranged from $13,000 to $425,000, with a total of $11.2 million going to those named on the list.
This is the first time such information has been made public, and it provides a clearer picture of the scope of the sexual abuse crisis that occurred in the diocese over three decades between 1950 and 1980.
Some 79 people - 72 men and seven women - received payments after alleging direct abuse by pedophile priests and other diocesan officials during this time period, according to court documents.
Another 65 victims receiving compensation from the diocese were parents and spouses of those who were directly abused. They were awarded a maximum payment of $20,000 each for what's called "loss of consortium," a legal term referring to a loss of affection, companionship and productivity due to damage inflicted on their family members.
The three-decade period in question is when the lion's share of abuse is said to have occurred within the diocese, which represents the entire state. Types of abuse listed in the legal documents include fondling, sodomy and many other forms of inappropriate physical contact.
At the time the class-action suit was settled, the number of victims was said to be around 50, a figure that has now tripled in size. The list included in the February lawsuit is the most up-to-date accounting of those allegedly victimized by church officials before 1979.
But one leading advocate for those abused by members of the cloth said he suspects the official numbers are "deceptively low."
"It's low especially in a state that's not heavily Catholic," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I would hope that South Carolina Catholics would insist that their bishop come clean about the identities and whereabouts and work histories of every one of these clerics."
Bishopaccountability.org, a victim advocacy organization that tracks details of the Catholic sex abuse problem in the U.S., has named 12 priests in the Diocese of Charleston who have been accused of abuse, five of whom received criminal convictions. About 44 Catholic dioceses and religious institutions in the U.S. have released the names of accused priests - at least partial lists - but the local diocese is not among them.
"The Diocese of Charleston is not releasing the names of the accused priests because, when the diocese receives an allegation, it cooperates with authorities in accordance with its policy and state law," Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the diocese, wrote in an email.
The diocese did confirm that the number of priests subject to credible allegations since 1950 is 32. "A credible allegation meets one of three criteria: the diocese paid out money related to the allegation, the priest confessed to the allegation or the allegation was determined credible by an independent source (the Sexual Abuse Advisory Board or a judge)," Aselage wrote.
Clohessy argued that keeping these names from the public can create an opportunity for abusers to commit new crimes.
"Some might be in prison or dead, but some number of proven, admitted and credibly accused child-molesting priests, nuns, brothers and seminarians are now living, and may be working, among unsuspecting families and colleagues," he said. "So to keep their names secret is extraordinarily reckless and callous and arguably a violation of the U.S. Bishop's national abuse policy that allegedly mandates openness."
Attorney Larry Richter agreed. One of the lead attorneys on the class-action lawsuit, Richter said there was evidence that the diocese had been home to about 28 abusers.
"I wish there comes a time when one day the diocese is not redacting the names of abusers but instead publishing the names of abusers," he said. "It's the right thing to do to protect potential future victims and be honest to the faithful."
The earliest recorded abuse occurred in 1951, according to the current lawsuit; the latest happened in 1979-80, the last year of insurance coverage from the companies named in the case.
The Bishop of Charleston, the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, is suing Insurance Company of North America, Ace American Insurance Company and other Ace affiliates, as well as Century Indemnity Company, seeking a jury trial.
"The diocese had insurance with various companies up to 1979, then another company since 1979," said A. Peter Shahid Jr., attorney for the diocese. "So we're trying to collect under the terms of the insurance policies that were in effect at the time the allegation of abuse occurred."
At issue are legal costs for defending the diocese in the class-action suit and the resulting settlement awards, which already have been paid. The diocese alleges the companies failed to pay up on their policies, leaving the diocese on the hook to pay out millions.
Carla Ferrara, a spokeswoman for the ACE Group, said her company doesn't comment on active litigation.
The lawsuit employs a legal tactic that has been tried in other parts of the country, with mixed results.
Clohessy said several dioceses have sought to recover money from their insurance companies in recent years, only to be rebuffed with the argument that the abuse was preventable and therefore the church's own fault.
"The more that cover-ups become uncovered, the clearer it is to insurance companies that the vast majority of this horror could have been prevented," Clohessy said.
The diocese maintains it has approached the class-action settlements in good faith and with compassion. The diocese waived the statute of limitations for victims seeking to join the class action before it was resolved. And it allowed relatives of abuse victims to seek compensation in recognition of the pain and suffering they had endured, Shahid said.
The Charleston diocese is hardly alone in dealing with this fallout from decades of hidden abuse.
The Catholic Church has been coping for many years with allegations of extensive sexual abuse in many U.S. dioceses and in numerous countries. Exacerbating the controversy, the church has systematically protected predator priests and other officials by refusing to enable criminal prosecution and by relocating perpetrators from one diocese to another. Many of these priests, taking advantage of their authority and oversight, continued to victimize children and teenagers.
The problem exploded onto the public stage in the U.S. with The Boston Globe's investigative reports of 2002, though it was already making headlines as far back as the 1980s. U.S. courts heard the bulk of civil cases and presided over dozens of settlements during the years since the Globe's series.
The Boston archdiocese paid $85 million in settlements to victims; Los Angeles paid more than $730 million; the diocese of Orange, Calif., paid $100 million; Savannah paid more than $4 million. Bishopaccountability.org estimates that more than $3 billion has been paid to victims over the years.
The website has recorded about 5,700 persons who have alleged sexual abuse by Catholic clergy - one-third of the more than 15,000 allegations that bishops say they have received through 2009, and only 5 percent of the 100,000 U.S. victims that Fr. Andrew Greeley estimated in a 1993 study.
For a variety of reasons, many victims never come forward, according to sexual abuse experts.
The abuse problem in the church also has flared in Europe, South America and elsewhere in recent years. Germany, Ireland, England, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Australia, Chile, Argentina and other countries all have been coping with multiple allegations and lawsuits.
On April 11, Pope Francis went off-script to tell representatives of the International Catholic Child Bureau, a French Catholic network of organizations that protects children's rights, that the church must confront the sex abuse scandal more forcefully.
"I feel compelled to take personal responsibility for all the evil that some priests - many, many in number, (although) not in comparison with the totality - to assume personal responsibility and to ask forgiveness for the damage caused by the sexual abuse of the children," he said in his native Spanish.
This was the first time a pope assumed responsibility for the endemic pedophilia in the church.
"The church is aware of this damage," Francis went on. "We don't want to take a step back in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I think we must be even stronger. You don't play around with the lives of children."
Editor's note: Information provided by the Diocese of Charleston initially listed the number of credible allegations against priests it had received over the years. In fact, those numbers referred to individual priests, not allegations, the diocese said.
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