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Catholic Diocese of Richmond introduces reconciliation program for victims of sexual abuse

Catholic Diocese of Richmond introduces reconciliation program for victims of sexual abuse

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The Catholic Diocese of Richmond has responded to criticism that it isn’t doing enough to address the needs of victims of sexual abuse by announcing it is introducing an “Independent Reconciliation Program.”

This program, which would offer monetary compensation to victims who come forward in the next 60 days, was revealed Sunday in newspaper advertisements.

This comes after at least one critic, Father Mark White, was silenced by Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout for his public criticisms of church policy and after a probe into potential sexual child abuse opened in October by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

Herring said that, after reading a grand jury report from Pennsylvania that accused more than 300 priests involving more than 1,000 victims, he wanted to make sure there wasn’t a similar problem of grand scale in Virginia.

“It made me sick to see the extent of the damage done, the efforts to cover it up, and the complicity and enabling that went on by powerful people who should have known better and should have done more to protect vulnerable children,” Herring said. “We shouldn’t assume the behavior and the problems are limited just to Pennsylvania or to one diocese.”

The National Review Board had engaged the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a study of sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses in the United States, from 1950 to 2002. The results, commonly referred to as the “John Jay Report,” was staggering: More than 11,000 allegations had been made against 4,392 priests in the U.S.

In an update as recent as October, about the time Herring announced his probe, there are now 54 clerics associated with the Diocese of Richmond who have been named as having a credible and substantiated allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor.

As Herring continues to investigate the state’s two dioceses of Richmond and Arlington, Knestout conducted a closed-door meeting of priests in Roanoke earlier this month and on Sunday announced publicly what he had told the priests in private.

The “Catholic Diocese of Richmond is establishing an Independent Reconciliation Program to assist in the healing of those who were sexually abused as minors by Catholic clergy,” Knestout wrote in an open letter that appeared as a full-page ad in the Martinsville Bulletin and at least two other newspapers in Virginia. “This program … gives victim survivors an opportunity to receive monetary payment in a manner that is compassionate.”

Critics are calling this plan a way for Knestout to pay off abuse victims, causing them to lose their right to have their days in court.

Victims are given until April 3 to start the process and must have filed a claim by May 15 to be eligible. The rules state “by signing the release, the claimant will waive any future civil legal claim relating to sexual abuse against the Richmond diocese.”

“I hope the program helps people who need monetary assistance,” Father Mark White said. “As far as the moral dimensions of the program, I have some thoughts that I wish I could publish on my blog.

“But I will observe my promise of obedience to the bishop, and keep silent.”

White has been silenced by Knestout from commenting online after he became critical of the Catholic hierarchy’s handling of the abuse crisis. White had declined to sign a document in which he would pledge agreement with that step, but he said he would honor a directive delivered in a meeting in January with the bishop and other church officials.

If White violates the bishop’s directive, he has said, he could be relieved of his priesthood.

One officiant who did have his ecclesiastical endorsements revoked because of his support for abuse victims is Gene Thomas Gomulka, a retired Navy captain and chaplain who served on active duty at Marine Corps and Navy commands for more than 24 years.

Gomulka was vocal in his support for sexual abuse victims and their confrontations with church leaders whom he said underreported and covered up abuse. Gomulka recently has come to White’s defense in a letter to Knestout.

“You have placed Father White in a very difficult moral position in regard to following his informed conscience,” Gomulka wrote. “Based on the evidence he has seen and read, he has come to the conclusion that certain Church leaders … are guilty of covering up sex abuse.

“If Father White is correct in his assessment ... then one can understand why he may have been led to ‘beg’ the pope to resign.

“If you honestly believe the pope did not lie or cover-up abuse… then please explain to Father White, to the Catholics of your diocese, and to the local media outlets that have been covering this story how you reached this conclusion.”

Whether or not White’s criticism has helped to hasten the reconciliation program initiated by Knestout is unknown.

The Martinsville Bulletin requested an interview with Knestout about his letter and developments, but Diocese Communications Director Deborah Cox said on Tuesday that she would check on the request and get back “at a later time.”

Cox did offer this prepared statement:

“Bishop Knestout firmly believes in the Independent Reconciliation Program as an important next step in his ongoing commitment to support victim survivors toward their paths of healing.

“So important is this next step and because our diocese covers more than 33,000 square miles in Virginia, we sought to place ads in numerous newspapers across the diocese to reach a wide audience and bring awareness to the Program Bishop Knestout announced on Feb. 17.

“We are aware that some victim survivors are reluctant to come to the Church for assistance. Bishop Knestout hopes this program will encourage those who, as minors, were sexually abused by clergy serving in the Diocese of Richmond, to come forward. This program is administered by an independent firm and allows victim survivors a chance to seek compensation to aid in their healing process.

“A victim assistance coordinator can be reached via email at vac@richmonddiocese.org, or by calling the confidential Victim Assistance Reporting Line at 877-887-9603.”

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