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Albany bishop says mediation could help victims

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger. Credit: Diocese of Albany

The Bishop of Albany is proposing an alternative plan to settle hundreds of claims of sexual abuse against the New York diocese, a proposal the bishops hopes would avoid litigation over abuse claims and a diocesan filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The diocese is proposing a court-approved mediation process and a fund for survivors created by the diocese, its affiliated institutions and its insurers, to compensate victims.

But Bishop Scharfenberger told The Pillar that the reason he is making the proposal, which he described as “another path forward for survivors,” isn’t to save the diocese money. Instead, he said, he hopes the mediation process could ensure all victims receive some compensation from available diocesan resources.

“The thing, I think, that's not been understood is that there is a limited amount of money,” the bishop told The Pillar. “I don't want any hidden corners whereby we say we've got this pot over there saving for a rainy day,” he said. “I'll throw everything out there, but the thing is, the pot is limited.”

“And with the litigation, we have some really tough cases coming up — by ‘tough’ I mean really terrible abuse — and the possibility at least that they could exhaust virtually all of the funds is real. So you might have a situation where you have some cases getting [large awards] and there's nothing for the others.”

While it is unclear if the plan will be accepted by victim-survivors and their lawyers, one advocate for restorative justice in the Church said the bishop is modeling a “brave” kind of pastoral leadership that could serve as an example in other dioceses.

The diocese is facing more than 400 claims from victims of sexual abuse, many of them dating back several decades. The lawsuits were filed after the state passed legislation in 2019 creating a window in the civil statute of limitations to allow victims in historical cases to come forward — initially meant to create a one year window, the legislation was extended by more than a year because of the coronavirus.

It is not yet clear how the proposal will be received by survivors. The Pillar contacted Jeffrey Anderson, whose firm is representing many of the Albany claimants, to ask whether the lawyer would present Scharfenberger’s proposal to his clients.

A spokesperson for Anderson told The Pillar he was unavailable for comment.

In a Wednesday letter announcing his plan, Scharfenberger said he recognized many victim-survivors might treat the plan, and his motives, skeptically.

“While I will continue to do all in my power to accompany survivors and loved ones in recovery, including their spiritual healing,” he said, “I understand that my efforts are naturally difficult to trust. It will be hard for many to believe that I am acting or speaking from my heart, or that what I do or say is credible.”

A tendency to skepticism of the Church among many victim-survivors in Albany was heightened when earlier this year Scharfenberger’s predecessor said in a deposition that he had sent several priests he knew to be accused of abuse back into active ministry.

Admitting that it was a “mistake” to reassign the accused clergy without informing either the public or the local parish community, Bishop Howard Hubbard said it was “common practice” in the Church at the time.

Hubbard, who led the diocese from 1977 until 2014, is himself facing allegations of abuse, which he strenuously denies, and is being investigated by the Church under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi.

“I am aware that offending institutions are not owed, and cannot assume, trust in their credibility or even good faith,” Scharfenberger said in his letter this week.

But despite those reasons for concern, some survivors advocates seem willing to give both Bishop Scharfenberger and his plan the benefit of the doubt.

Teresa Pitt Green is the cofounder of Spirit Fire, a fellowship of survivors of abuse within the Church, which advocates for restorative justice.

Pitt Green told The Pillar she was one of several people with whom the bishop consulted while developing the mediation proposal.

Survivors seeking restorative justice don’t progress at the same pace, she noted, with many needing more time to process the trauma of what they have gone through while coming forward.

“If you think about what all the survivors are going through right now with [the New York Child Victims Act], you’re bringing up all the memories because you gotta file your lawsuit. You gotta remember all this. You’re living with it — it’s fresh and every time something comes out in the news, you relive it like it’s fresh. So it’s a really painful situation for the survivors right now.”

In ordinary bankruptcy settings, she said, people who need the most time to come forward are at the back of the line for compensation.

Pitt Green praised Scharfenberger’s “deep concern” that such survivors not be disadvantaged.

“I would say it’s also hard for survivors, not all of them, but some, to really understand that at some point [the fund for compensation] caps out. Even if you have a bishop who’s really ready to liquidate whatever it takes, the funds are finite and those funds will be used up for everything from the cost of the lawsuit through what’s shared with the survivors. Sometimes maybe that’s just hard to comprehend. It would be for me if I was in their situation.”

Asked about how those concerns might play out among survivors facing the litigation process, Pitt Green said that “all survivors I know would very much care that one didn’t get all the money and the other didn’t face an empty coffer. I know a lot of survivors and anyone I know would hasten to want to share equitably.”

But, she acknowledged, there is an issue of trust.

“That’s the challenge, because how do you trust somebody else to help you do that? There’s no reason those guys need to. I mean, how can they, there’s just so much hurt. And so part of it is just knowing who’s going to be the person to help that equitably happen. That’s likely to be the thing that holds up survivors, just the nervousness, like how do you trust somebody to do that?”

Scharfenberger himself would seem to agree, telling The Pillar that, “I understand why nobody would believe me or some won’t believe me — not just survivors, but even a lot of Catholics that have been so hurt by this. I have it in my own family. I get that.”

“You can’t undo damages done,” the bishop said, “but what we can work for is healing and hope and redemption, and trust that, with that, we could get through this.”

For her part, Pitt Green said the bishop had a track record of earning survivors’ trust.

“He meets with survivors,” she said. “I had my doubts about him when I first met him, and I've come to just admire him.”

“Personally, and I don’t mind going on record saying this, there is not a survivor I would hesitate to send to talk with him. He’s so pastoral, including with family members, he’s somebody who understands that family members suffer enormously and he gets that.”

Speaking to The Pillar, the bishop said that he is offering a plan for mediation out of a desire to see victim-survivors receive both justice, and the chance for healing.

“There need to be the financial resources,” Scharfenberger said, but a mediation plan would also allow for “personal resources focused on victim assistance and accompaniment.”

“Not everybody is even near talking about friendship, but some people do miss at least having some sort of fellowship, and the Church obviously means something to them in their relationship with God and the sacramental life of the Church.”

Offering both financial recompense along with personal restorative justice and accompaniment for survivors who want it is “the main thing,” he said.

“What I’m concerned about is this: it’s gotta be about more than just financial compensation — we need that as a lead, but I'm concerned about long term relationships. And I know there are many people that don’t feel they can trust the Church ever again, but we have to at least leave the door open, and even if they don’t feel, you know, comfortable taking that next step. I’m not gonna go away. I want to hear, I want to accompany, I need to see survivors — I see them as my people. So that's my motivation.”

Pitt Green said that she believes in the bishop’s motivation.

“His idea is the money is important for people. He knows it helps a little bit, but he also knows no amount of money heals somebody — he understands that there’s more. He understands, especially when you’re  wounded by the Church, how much it can mean just to talk and be with somebody who represents the Church. It doesn’t mean he is asking everybody to come back to church, because it’s so painful for some survivors. But he is saying, you know, come, and he’ll listen.”

That approach, Pitt Green, said, is an important part of Church leaders learning to engage better with survivors of abuse.

“The Church pays for its flaws,” she said. “It should pay, not just for the abuse, but the cover up. This is what happens when an evil happens — there are ramifications that can last for decades, certainly in our psyche, as survivors, we carry it to the day we die.”

“What I love about what Bishop Scharfenberger is doing is he gets that. But what has happened in the past has meant that attorneys were the first people that really listened and cared. Now we have a third generation of bishops showing up who had nothing to do with the era during which some of the more stupid decisions — really cruel, I would say cruel decisions — were made, and they’re trying.”

“Bishop Scharfenberger is trying and the sad thing for me watching it is I know he is, and I know he is sincere, and I know he could help survivors. But I know it’s really almost impossible for them to trust him enough to do so.”

Outside his own diocese, Scharfenberger has been tasked with handling some of the most difficult situations in the Church’s efforts to resolve decades of scandal. In December 2019, he was appointed apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo, after the Vatican accepted the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone following a protracted scandal over his handling of abuse cases and other allegations.

The following year, Scharfenberger took the Buffalo diocese through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, an experience he told The Pillar helped him form the mediation plan he’s offering in Albany.

“I saw this in Buffalo when I had to begin a Chapter 11 [bankruptcy]. There was no choice. They were overwhelmed with over a thousand cases, so when I was helping out Buffalo, we had to begin that, but the amount of fees in the process is just [enormous] and I worried if there's going to be anything left with the survivors. I'd rather see that money go to the survivors.”

“In the long run, that's what I want [in Albany] to get out there that somehow or other this plan could be beneficial to all — at least all those who are litigation, and maybe even others that might want to come forward.”

Pitt Green told The Pillar that it’s hard to predict how the mediation plan would be received by survivors and their lawyers. But, she said, there is “ a very real possibility that it gets rebuffed because it doesn't fit into the cookie cutter approach to how these things get solved.”

If that proves to be the case, she said there was the possibility that the Albany proposal could be a kind of “noble failure” and an example for other bishops to try as well.

“I look at that and I see it, and I get it, and it breaks my heart, but at least it's better than a bishop who's just hiding behind his attorneys. I mean, it's really brave what he's doing.”

“The bigger issue for institutional change is the heart of the bishop, but not the offer. And I think that in Bishop Scharfenberger, you have a really uniquely brave bishop. I'm not saying there aren't other ones out there, and I don't know if they match up to where the lawsuits are happening. But what I will say is it cannot be underestimated, the courage and singularity of what he's doing.”

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