Clergy sex abuse has cost Catholic Church $3 billion in settlements

Clergy sex abuse of children has rocked the Catholic Church not only in terms of trust and reputation, but also financially, to the tune of more than $3 billion, according to National Public Radio.

The multibillion-dollar expense has gone to settlements in response to lawsuits filed by people abused by clergy, reports NPR. Nearly 20 Catholic dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy because of the scandals.

An attorney whose firm represented abuse victims said that the money the church has paid because of the crisis is part of justice for those who suffered, though it hardly compensates for all the damage done.

"I don't like the word healing," said attorney James Stang to NPR, "because it's too much of an individual process; but at the end of the day, that accountability is demonstrated by the payment of money."

The lawsuits have been filed primarily against dioceses and religious orders, which have the kind of auspices over priests that a single parish does not.

The Catholic Church assets involved in settlements include cash, stocks, and land.

Johnny Vega, who was raped by a priest as well as a deacon of the New Jersey church where he was an altar boy, was one of more than two dozen victims who were part of a $5 million settlement in 2005 with the Paterson Diocese. Vega and the other plaintiffs alleged in the lawsuit that the Diocese of Paterson and then-Bishop Frank J. Rodimer could have prevented the abuse.

Johnny Vega, at 9 years old, left, when he began to experience abuse by clergy; recent photo, right

Johnny Vega, at 9 years old, left, when he began to experience abuse by clergy; recent photo, right (Courtesy of Johnny Vega)

“For the billions it has cost the Catholic Church, it does not compare to the cost of (traumatic) lives that many have suffered over the years,” Vega told Fox News.

For years, Vega struggled in silence through the abuse and the toll it took on him. The priest and deacon were almost sacred figures to his parents, as well as others in the congregation, Vega said, and the thought of revealing the horrors they had inflicted on him was intimidating to a young boy.

He embarked on a chaotic path that included trying to end his life and hanging out with the wrong crowd before he began a journey toward healing that included starting a support group for other Latinos abused by priests.

“I was lucky enough to have had the support system needed to keep me strong and fight for changes.”

The Paterson Diocese also provided four years of psychological counseling, but did not publicly admit guilt or issue an apology.

On Tuesday, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report that said that hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — since the 1940s, and senior church officials, including a man who is now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., systematically covered up the abuse.

For the billions it has cost the Catholic Church, it does not compare to the cost of (traumatic) lives that many have suffered over the years. I was lucky enough to have had the support system needed to keep me strong and fight for changes.

— Johnny Vega, clergy sex abuse plaintiff

The “real number” of abused children might be in the thousands since some secret church records were lost, and victims were afraid to come forward, the grand jury said.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing. They hid it all,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference in Harrisburg.

The report put the number of abusive clergy at more than 300. In nearly all of the cases, the statute of limitations has run out, meaning that criminal charges cannot be filed. More than 100 of the priests are dead, and many others are retired or have been dismissed from the priesthood or put on leave.

“We are sick over all the crimes that will go unpunished and uncompensated,” the grand jury said.

Authorities evaluated each suspect and were able to charge just two, including a priest who has since pleaded guilty. Shapiro said the investigation is ongoing.

Church officials “routinely and purposefully described the abuse as horseplay and wrestling” and simply “inappropriate conduct,” Shapiro said.

“It was none of those things. It was child sexual abuse, including rape,” he said.

Tim Lennon, the president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to lift civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sex crimes, and to provide victims who no longer meet the age requirements in state law with a new window to file civil lawsuits.

Vega pushes for an end to such statutes every chance he gets.

"The statute of limitations that many states still have that one has two years to report an abuse is wrong and they need to get rid of it," he told Fox News.

"More cases will come out in many states and the Catholic Church will be spending more to have cases settled, but yet not apologize because that will cause than to admit wrongdoing on their part," Vega said. "It's time that those who hid these priest be held accountable as well."

This is extraordinarily painful, it is embarrassing, it is humiliating, it is nauseating...I really worry about a loss to credibility, a loss of trust.

— Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the diocese of New York

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the diocese of New York, told CBS in an interview on Wednesday that the latest revelations by the Pennsylvania grand jury could further erode trust in the Catholic church.

“This is extraordinarily painful, it is embarrassing, it is humiliating, it is nauseating, but we believe in a God that can bring good out of evil,” said Dolan, who called the grand jury disclosures “a kick in the gut.”

“I really worry about a loss to credibility, a loss of trust,” said Dolan. “There’s no use denying it. We can’t sugar coat it, this is disastrous.”

Some experts say Catholics already are acting on a lack of trust in the church.

"One set of Catholic parents told me, 'I'm never going to let my daughter be an altar girl after this,'" NPR quoted Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at the Catholic University of America, as saying. "Another set of parents said they are thinking about taking their children out of Catholic schools. For young people, this is coming at a time when they are already suspicious of institutions and authority. It will impact everything."

Others, however, don’t think Catholics will abandon the Church in droves.

"The reasons they say they belong to a church or [what they say] they find meaningful in the church don't have much to do with who the leader is or who the bishop is," said Mary Gautier, a research fellow at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. "It's much more personal than that. It's, 'this is where I feel a connection to my God. This is the faith community that nourishes me.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.