As Pa. compensation programs end, church victims wrestle with the price put on abuse

Two men, who came to different conclusions, share their experiences

  • Laura Benshoff/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — Last year’s grand jury report detailing sexual assault allegations against 301 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania raised the question: how would the church respond?

In the months that followed, seven of the eight dioceses in Pennsylvania launched compensation funds, following the model set by dioceses in New York.

These programs, which started winding down at the end of September, offer a lump sum to victims in return for signing away the right to sue the church over their allegations.

Some victims have used the program to put their fight with the church behind them. Others scoffed at the price tag put on their trauma. This is the story of two men who came to different conclusions.

‘What if it didn’t happen this way? Where would I be?’

Growing up in Philadelphia, John Quinn bounced between his family’s home and a half dozen Catholic orphanages around the region.

“I ended up in St. John’s, St. Joe’s, St. Mary’s, St. Francis’, St. Michael’s and a foster home,” said the 67-year-old, rattling off his stops.

Quinn said his father was an alcoholic, and his mother could be physically abusive. For thousands of young people who filtered through church-run orphanages in Philadelphia, these institutions often offered a reprieve from a difficult family life. But they also created an environment ripe for the abuse of vulnerable children.

At St. Joseph’s House for Homeless and Industrious Boys in Philadelphia, Quinn said a layperson working as a dorm supervisor molested him.

The atmosphere there led him to run away often. After one escape, he says Father Charles Siegele, a diocesan priest, found him and brought him back to his mother’s house.

On the way, Quinn said the priest stopped at an apartment on the Main Line, got him drunk and sodomized him.

“It seemed like I had something written across my head, ‘I’m available, take me,’ because I’d been abused so many times,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it could not confirm Quinn’s allegations, but officials say Siegele, who remained in ministry until he died in 1989, is on its list of credibly accused priests.

Quinn kept running away and eventually turned to use drugs and alcohol.

“I was a hustler for quite a few years. I would make my money, get my drugs and do whatever I had to do,” he said, referring to the time he spent as a sex worker in New York City.

In the late 1980s, he decided to confront his past and went into treatment. He also told church leaders his story.

In the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began paying Quinn a living allowance, without admitting any wrongdoing.

“It is understood that these funds are provided out of charitable concern for your welfare,” wrote Reverend William J. Lynn, in one letter dated February 1996, and accompanied by a check for $2,000.

Sobriety and church-subsidized therapy helped Quinn stabilize his life. He now lives in Arkansas with his fourth wife, who works at a chicken processing plant. They have two teenage sons.

John Quinn, 67, attended St. Francis Vocational School for a couple of months in the 1960s, along with other Catholic orphanages including St. John’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Michael’s, and St. Mary’s. Quinn says it was during that time that he was molested by priests and counselors.

Natalie Piserchio for WHYY

John Quinn, 67, attended St. Francis Vocational School for a couple of months in the 1960s, along with other Catholic orphanages including St. John’s, St. Joseph’s, St. Michael’s, and St. Mary’s. Quinn says it was during that time that he was molested by priests and counselors.

Earlier this year, he applied to the archdiocese’s victim compensation fund. Due to eligibility requirements, only his allegations against Siegele were weighed by fund administrators. Accusations against lay people working in Catholic institutions are excluded.

When they offered him a quarter-million dollars, Quinn took it — and started spending it. He paid $50,000 in credit card debt. He bought one son a car, the other braces.

“Now, I live halfway comfortably,” he said.

The process of fighting the church is draining, and he is ready to put it behind him. But closing that door doesn’t stop doubts from creeping in.

“I get stressed, I get depressed, I get ‘What if’s,’” he said. “‘What if it didn’t happen this way? Where would I be?”’

‘No formula’

The Catholic Church does not have a consistent yardstick to determine how much someone’s childhood abuse deserves in reparations.

In Pennsylvania, each diocese appointed independent legal experts to vet the claims and make settlement offers.

“The claims administrators look at [are] the documentation, they look at the nature and extent of the abuse, and they fashion a monetary award,” said Lawrence Stengel, a retired federal judge who chairs the oversight committee for the Philadelphia’s compensation program.

“There is no formula. There is no limit,” he continued.

Ninety-eight percent of applicants to the archdiocese’s compensation fund accept the settlement offered, said Stengel, a sign that the amounts are “adequate and fair.”

He also noted that more than half of all people who registered claims with the program had never come forward before, signaling that the confidentiality and independent nature of the process allowed victims their right to privacy.

Critics say the program is a ploy to mitigate the church’s liability amid calls to reform Pennsylvania’s statute-of-limitations laws. Advocates want to allow people with decades-old sexual assault claims to sue.

“The Church would like people to believe that they’re doing the right thing by helping survivors when really they’re trying to get releases to protect themselves when the law changes,” said attorney Richard Serbin, who represents dozens of victims alleging crimes against  Pennsylvania Catholic clergy.

The funds themselves are not independent enough from church leadership, according to Serbin, because the dioceses set the boundaries on the money available to pay reparations. That leads to arbitrary differences in settlement amounts.

Keystone Crossroads requested information on the number of claimants and amounts paid out from the seven dioceses with reparation programs, which excludes Altoona-Johnstown. The total tally for those that responded is north of $44 million.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has the most heavily used program, having already doled out $32 million.

As of late September, it had received 449 applications, most of which are still under review. The average settlement amount is around $235,000, according to Stengel.

As of Aug. 1, the Diocese of Scranton had paid 44 victims, averaging $159,000 a payout.

The Diocese of Erie has settled with 32 of 167 fund applicants as of the end of September. The average settlement is $124,219.

Spokespeople for the Dioceses of Allentown and Pittsburgh said they would share numbers at a later date, once all claims have been processed.

Donald Asbee

Courtesy of Dan Hemmelgarn

Donald Asbee

‘I didn’t learn enough’

Earlier this year, Donald Asbee traveled from his home in central Missouri to Harrisburg to meet with administrators of the diocese’s reparations program.

“I had no expectations…but it was really unorganized,” he said later.

The one person handling his case was late, but the meeting went on anyway. Administrators asked for Asbee to describe his abuse and then expressed “deep sorrow,” he said.

Then, Asbee returned home to wait for a letter. When it came, he said the amount seemed like an affront: $176,800.

“It didn’t seem like enough money for having lost my childhood and for having gone through the mess that the childhood sexual abuse manifests as you grow older,” Asbee said.

“I didn’t learn enough about what really went on,” he added, about whether others like him faced the same abuse.

Asbee was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Church in Milton, an industrial town along the Susquehanna River in Northumberland County. Starting at age nine, he said two priests sexually assaulted him on multiple occasions, including in the church sacristy.

Instead of taking the settlement, Asbee decided to sue the diocese for covering up abuse, based on information in the grand jury report.

The Diocese of Harrisburg declined to comment on his allegations due to pending litigation. It confirmed that both accused priests, Rev. Raymond Dougherty and Rev. Walter Semko, are deceased. Dougherty is named on a list of credibly accused priests the diocese released last year.

Asbee hopes his lawsuit will make the church pay for both his abuse and its failure to protect children.

“The whole idea of being punished. That’s the only thing that seems like it’s going to make any difference because so much has been said by the church officials that has turned out to be meaningless, just hot air,” he said.

As a successful blacksmith and artist, Asbee has the means to wait and see if he can get the kind of justice he wants through the courts. At least a half dozen other victims are taking the same road.

For John Quinn, fighting the church is now behind him.

“I’m a man of my word. I signed [away my right to sue] and I said I wasn’t going to go after them any more,” he said. “The whole thing is draining, all the time, when I gotta deal with it.”

He says he’s trying to look ahead.

Some of the settlement money is going to a small town in Veracruz, Mexico, where he and his wife have been slowly building a house.

He pulls out his phone and shows a picture of a stucco building, painted deep purple with white trim — his vision for a final getaway.

 

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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