(Los Angeles) – At a press conference Tuesday in Los Angeles, prominent Catholic whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor, clergy abuse survivors Christopher Szuflita and Thomas Davis, and attorneys from the law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates summarized and exposed drawbacks of the survivor compensation programs announced by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Dioceses of Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Orange, and Fresno.
The law firm released a summary of the compensation programs, which are similar to those previously offered to survivors in New York and other states. “To participate in an independent compensation program requires a survivor to give a full release of all claims,” said attorney Jeff Anderson, who has represented child sexual abuse survivors for more than 35 years. “[The programs] do not give a survivor a voice.”
Many survivors have received payouts under these programs. Anderson said he admires the courage it takes for any survivor to come forward and disclose such painful secrets. Coming forward is the first step in the healing process and survivors deserve compensation, he said. But they deserve much more, said Anderson.
O’Connor, former personal assistant to Diocese of Buffalo (New York) Bishop Richard Malone, spoke about her decision to expose Malone’s cover-up of clergy sexual abuse by reluctantly releasing secret Diocese of Buffalo documents to the public to disclose the truth. O’Connor also spoke about how the Diocese mishandled survivors who called the Diocese hotline to report their abuse for the compensation program and did not call them back for weeks. The hotline rang to a phone in an empty office, she said.
“I’m here today because I want to make sure that survivors in California are as well informed as possible,” she said. “In my experience [The Diocese of Buffalo] certainly did not have the best interests of survivors at heart or in mind.”
Survivors Christopher Szuflita and Thomas Davis spoke about their abuse by priests they suffered as minors and the problems they encountered previously with survivor compensation programs in New York Dioceses.
Szuflita was sexually abused by Diocese of Buffalo priest Fr. Joseph Friel at Fourteen Holy Helpers. Szuflita reported the abuse to another priest, who told him he was lying and could be excommunicated. Regardless, Friel was soon transferred from Fourteen Holy Helpers. Szuflita later tried unsuccessfully to sue the Diocese of Buffalo regarding the abuse. In 2018, the Diocese of Buffalo listed Friel as one of 42 priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Szuflita filed a claim with the Diocese of Buffalo’s compensation program after it was announced in March 2018. He turned down the program’s settlement offer.
“They offered me a settlement to keep quiet, so I wouldn’t come forward again,” Szuflita said. “I never received a phone call or letter of apology.”
Davis was sexually abused by Diocese of Brooklyn priest Msgr. Otto Garcia. Garcia went on to positions in the Diocese of Brooklyn hierarchy, including Chancellor, and is alleged to have helped cover up the abuse of several pedophile priests in the Diocese. Davis, meanwhile, kept his abuse secret for some 40 years. He reported the abuse to the Diocese and sat for two interviews with a diocesan lawyer and private investigator in 2017. The process seemed one-sided; Davis and his attorney Mike Reck of Jeff Anderson & Associates were not allowed to question Garcia nor any other diocesan priests and were denied access to diocesan documents regarding Garcia. “They brought me to a kangaroo court,” he said.
Information from Davis’ interviews was provided to the Diocese of Brooklyn Diocesan Review Board, which provided a recommendation to the Diocese of Brooklyn’s compensation program. The Review Board and the compensation program found Davis’ claim not credible. Compensation program administrators Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros – who are the managers of the California programs – denied Davis’ claim and found him “ineligible for compensation” due to “insufficient support.”
“I felt like I was left hanging in the breeze by them,” Davis said. “They did not do their job.”
Szuflita and Davis are not done fighting for justice and transparency. They both plan to file civil lawsuits under New York’s new Child Victims Act (CVA), signed into law in February of 2019. The CVA reformed the statute of limitations (SOL) for child sexual abuse survivors in New York to allow them to bring a civil lawsuit against abusers and institutions until they reach the age of 55, instead of 23. The CVA opened a one-year window for child sex abuse victims of any age to bring lawsuits for abuse in cases that were previously barred by the statute of limitations.
Lawsuits result in more than just compensation for survivors, Anderson said. Through the litigation process, abusers and institutions that protected them are forced to disclose information and secret documents showing abusers’ histories and how institutions covered for them. Anderson said that similar CVA measures in Minnesota and Hawaii enabled hundreds of survivors to come forward, bring lawsuits and begin the healing process.
California lawmakers are currently considering similar SOL reform and window legislation, which has built momentum after Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed SOL reform and window legislation last year. The legislation – Assembly Bill 218 – passed the Assembly two months ago and is before the state Senate now. Attorney Mike Finnegan of Jeff Anderson and Associates noted that the California bishops are using the compensation plans to take rights away from survivors.
“As [California] bishops are urging survivors to come forward to them, they’re in the lobby in Sacramento lobbying against the Child Victims Act. Lobbying against survivors rights,” Finnegan said.
Anderson, Finnegan, and Attorneys Mike Reck and Stacey Benson of Jeff Anderson & Associates noted other concerns about the compensation plans: the California bishops are attempting to buy survivors’ silence and conceal their crimes and the crimes of abusive clergy; despite the bishops’ warnings, survivors can file civil lawsuits confidentially and keep their identities private; the compensation plans are adversarial toward survivors, contrary to information dispensed by the bishops; and only survivors of abuse by diocesan priests are eligible for the plans; victims of religious order priests are not eligible.
The California diocesan compensation programs are expected to open in September.
“AB218 is now passing through the California legislature,” concluded Anderson. “It brings hope. It can bring help. It can bring healing. It is about the recovery of power. It is about the truth being told fully. The peril is real and the [compensation] plan is deficient.”