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Deadline nears for compensation in priest abuse cases

A compensation fund for victims of sexual abuse by former priests of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg is approaching the deadline to file a claim: May 31.

Victims of abuse who have already made their complaints known to the diocese may seek confidential settlements, the diocese announced on March 1. The Independent Compensation and Reconciliation Program was voluntarily established by the diocese and will be administered by two independent, private individuals who will determine the amount of compensation for each victim.

The priests

In 2002, to comply with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that American bishops had passed, the diocese reported that since 1950, 56 people, 37 of whom were minors at the time, have made sexual-abuse allegations against 35 of its clergymen. The diocese found allegations against 23 priests credible but has not disclosed all their identities.

The diocese publicly removed four priests at the time, saying they had been credibly accused of abusing minors. All had served in the Tri-Lakes area. The details below come from a report released by Jeff Anderson and Associates, a Minnesota law firm specializing in clergy sexual abuse cases:

¯ Theodore Gillette served at Holy Name in AuSable Forks from 1979 to ’81 and at St. Bernard’s Church in Saranac Lake from ’82 to ’83, in addition to later assignments at Notre Dame in Ogdensburg (’84 to ’87), St. Augustine in Peru (’88), St. Hubert in Star Lake (’89 to ’93), St. Raphael’s in Heuvelton (’94), St. Paul in Black River (’95 to ’99) and St. Rita in Deferiet (’00 to ’02). He was removed from his parish assignment in 2002 as a result of child sexual abuse allegations and died of pneumonia at age 61 in 2014.

¯ Robert Shurtleff served at St. Bernard’s in Saranac Lake 1974 to ’75 and at Holy Name of Jesus in Tupper Lake in ’91, ’92, then in Tupper Lake at the Sunmount institution for people with developmental disabilities and again at Holy Name of Jesus from ’97 to 2000. Shurtleff also served at St. Mary’s in Potsdam (’71 to ’74), on an undisclosed assignment from ’76 to ’80 and then again from ’81 to ’89, as well as at St. Mary’s in Potsdam ’71 to ’74 and again in ’90. Additional assignments took him to St. Mary’s in Clayton and St. John the Evangelist in Lafargeville. He was removed from his parish assignment in 2002 as a result of a child sexual abuse allegation, and his current whereabouts are unknown.

¯ Clark S. White served at St. Alphonsus in Tupper Lake from 1980 to ’83. He also served in Morrsonville, Watertown, Louisville, Brasher Falls, Hogansburg and North Lawrence. White was removed from his parish assignment in 2002 due to an allegation of child sexual abuse and his whereabouts are unknown.

¯ David E. Wisniewski served at Camp Adirondack (now Adirondack Correctional Facility) in Ray Brook from 1988 to ’89, in addition to serving in Massena, Malone, Redford, Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility, Glenfield, Houseville and Lowville. He was removed from his parish assignment in 2002 due to an allegation of child sexual abuse, and his whereabouts are unknown.

The settlement plan

According to the report from Jeff Anderson and Associates, “While the IRCP does provide some measure of justice and accountability, it is also complex and requires a survivor to waive his/her future rights if a settlement is received. A survivor participating in the IRCP can enroll in the program alone or may wish to retain an attorney to assist them. An attorney can communicate directly with the IRCP and the Diocese to shield the survivor from further trauma.”

The independent administrators will evaluate the claims of people who have previously reported abuse to the diocese and determine the amount of each award. To date, the diocese has paid $209,000 in settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse, as well as paying $1,492,540 for counseling for victims, treatment programs for clergy and other responses.

In a press release, the diocese said it would take out a long-term loan to cover the costs of compensating victims: “The Diocese will not use money contributed to it by parishioners to support parishes, schools or charitable works to fund the IRCP, nor will it use funds from the annual Bishop’s Fund Appeal, any capital campaign contributions or gifts to a specific ministry or apostolate.”

The diocese has identified and contacted 38 victims of clergy sexual abuse, whose complaints reach from the 1940s to 2002, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted safety protocols to protect children from abuse by the clergy.

Bishop Terry LaValley said the fund “expresses our contrition to victims who have reported clergy sexual abuse to the Diocese and is intended to assist in their desire to find healing and peace.”

People who think they might be eligible to make a claim can email claimantservices@ogdensburgdioceseircp.com or call the ICCP at 833-718- 2719.

The Child Victims Act

On May 2 the New York state Assembly passed a bill named the Child Victims Act that would extend the state’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, but is not expected to pass the state Senate. The bill has been introduced every year since 2006 but has not yet made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Currently, victims of child sexual abuse in this state have until they are 23 years old to file civil cases or seek criminal charges. The Child Victims Act would change that to allow victims to file civil suits until they are 50 and seek criminal charges up to the age of 28. The bill would also create a one-year window allowing victims to file civil lawsuits for alleged abuse now barred by the existing statute of limitations.

The Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America both oppose the bill, saying it could cause catastrophic financial harm to their institutions and punishes the perpetrators’ employers, not those who committed the crimes.

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