Q&A with Bishop Cunningham

   Editor’s note: In the days preceding the announcement of the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, the Catholic Sun was able to submit questions about the program to Bishop Cunningham. The answers he provided follow.

   Catholic Sun: Why undertake this program?

   Bishop Cunningham: The simple answer is that it is the right thing to do. Since 2002, we have supported counseling, offered spiritual direction when requested and other forms of support to victims of clergy abuse.  We have been looking for other ways to reach out to those who have been harmed, knowing, of course, that we cannot reverse the damage that has been done. The IRCP is another way of trying to further the healing and to show that the Church has not abandoned them.

   CS: Why now?

   BC: We now have models that work from the three dioceses downstate. The Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Brooklyn, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre have all offered this program and it has been very well received by survivors, their families, and the overall community.  Compensation doesn’t take away the wounds but it shows that the Church is taking steps and acknowledging the lasting effects of this trauma.

   Over the past 8 years, the diocese has been implementing best practices, executing on its strategic plan, and moving from being a dollar-driven to a mission-focused organization. This change has provided the opportunity to restructure the organization and each ministry developed its own strategic plan and vision for the future. This process of operations and financial reorganization has given the diocese improved financial performance of its diocesan funds — all of which can be seen on our financial statements on the web. The general liability program, through oversight from the Risk Management Committee of the Finance Council, is in a stronger position through coverage in the insurance policies and reserves to implement the IRCP.

   CS: Legislation has been proposed in Albany that would allow a statute of limitations window to open for previously time-barred civil claims.* Is this program a response to the possibility of this legislation being enacted?

   BC: Efforts to change the statute of limitations in New York State have been taking place since 2002. We are offering this program now because we have a good model and we were able to identify what funds will be used.

   CS: What are you hoping to achieve through this program?

   BC: Hope and healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. I wrote in my letter to the people, that I know this effort will not reverse the damage that has been done but it is my hope that it serves as a sign of contrition.

   During the past 15 years, a great deal has been done to address this issue. Priests who we learned abused children decades ago have been permanently removed from ministry.  A solid working relationship has been developed with our local district attorneys through the Memorandum of Understanding. They have the names of those accused of abuse — the majority of whom are deceased — and those permanently removed from ministry as well as those who have been laicized. If we receive an allegation of past abuse, it is reported to the district attorney. If there were to be any reporting of abuse that is current, God forbid, it would be reported to the local authorities and they take over the investigation. The diocese will fully cooperate.

   The Office of Victim Assistance and the Diocesan Review Board have done tremendous work in this area. We are fortunate to have skilled laypeople who have expertise in the areas of child sexual abuse, law enforcement, and treatment. The same is true for our Safe Environment Program. Since it was established in 2003, the diocese has trained nearly 40,000 individuals in ways to prevent child abuse. These same individuals — all clergy, all religious, all diocesan employees and those volunteers whose ministry or role puts them in regular contact with minors — have all undergone a criminal background check and this process is repeated every five years.

   Additionally, the diocese is audited every year by Stonebridge Partners to make certain it is in “compliance” with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Diocese of Syracuse has been certified “compliant” every year and has implemented steps that go beyond the requirements of the Charter.

   And yet, with this progress and learning about the handling of this issue, we are aware that those who have been harmed need some tangible sign of the Church’s desire for healing and reconciliation. God willing, this program will provide a semblance of that.

   CS: What have other bishops/dioceses experienced through implementing these programs?

   BC: I believe they feel that overall it has been very helpful to the survivors and the Church. There is a sense of being heard and those who participated in the program feel they have been treated fairly and with dignity and respect. The key to this program is its independence. Mr. Feinberg and Ms. Biros, who administer the program, determine the eligibility and the compensation. Their expertise and professionalism are what make this program successful. We are grateful they will be administering the IRCP in the Diocese of Syracuse.

   CS: Monies for this program will be drawn from the diocese’s insurance reserves. How was this pool of money created?

   BC: The Diocese of Syracuse manages an Insurance fund on behalf of entities in the diocese. The diocese buys insurance coverage and then resells that insurance, similar to other insurance programs. There are four parts of the insurance program: Protected Self Insurance, or PSI, which includes general liability, worker’s compensation, property and auto, and other coverage. The other three are Health, Unemployment, and Disability.

   As this is a self-insurance program with coverage at higher levels of risk, the diocese is required to maintain reserves either due to New York State requirements as in worker’s compensation, health insurance with Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, or requirements of generally accepted accounting principles.

   Over the past years, reserves have increased to protect against rising costs in worker’s compensation or health insurance and to provide protection for known and unknown risks. All of these are reviewed by the Risk Management Committee of the Finance Council, by the audit committee, and by the diocesan auditors. The IRCP falls within the general liability program.

   CS: This pool of money is finite. If the amount of the settlements exceeds the amount in the pool, how will the diocese make up the difference?

   BC: We have committed to fully covering compensation awarded by the IRCP to those who are eligible.

    CS: How many letters have been sent?

   BC: Letters have been mailed to individuals who have notified the diocese in the past that they were sexually abused by a priest of our diocese as a minor. 76 letters have been mailed inviting those individuals to participate in the program.

   CS: How many priests and/or deacons have been accused of abuse?

   BC: 40 priests have been accused.

   CS: Will the names of priests against whom credible claims of abuse have been made be released? If no, why not?

   BC: I will continue to honor the requests of those who have come forward. Some survivors have asked me to release all of the names and others have asked me to not release the name of their offender. In an effort to respect both requests, I will continue the practice of confirming the name of the accused when the survivor makes it known. In that way, I am honoring the requests of both.

   CS: Has the diocese previously settled with individuals alleging abuse? If so, how many and when? What funds were used?

   BC: The diocese has settled approximately 20 claims over the years. The funds used were from the same self-protected general liability reserves.

   CS: Does this program change the safe environment reporting protocols already in place in the diocese?

   BC: The IRCP does not alter the protocols set in place for our safe environment program. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how the safe environment program has strengthened our efforts to protect children. It has truly changed the culture of our entire community. We have moved from people thinking behavior is “none of their business” to accepting that they have a role and a responsibility in keeping our children safe. Everyone is responsible to keep our children safe and we are finding that our people are embracing that principle. In this current era of the scourge of abuse surfacing in all segments of our society, it is significant that the diocese has been training people on this concept for 15 years and it is working.

   CS: Individuals who accept a settlement are required to sign a release precluding them from future legal action. This does not prevent them from disclosing information about their settlement if they so choose, correct?

   BC: You are absolutely correct.  Participants are not bound by any confidentiality provision and may disclose such information pertaining to such a claim. The diocese and the administrators will maintain all information regarding the claimant as confidential information to the fullest extent permitted by law.

   *See nyscatholic.org.