The Catholic Diocese of Richmond is paying $6.3 million to 51 people who were sexually abused as minors by clergy members, according to an Oct. 15 report on its website.
In February, the Richmond diocese launched the Independent Reconciliation Program. From April 3 to May 15, victims who were sexually abused as minors by clergy members were able to file their claims.
“We will never be able to fully compensate for the harm done and we recognized there are many routes that might be followed to achieve justice,” said Bishop Barry C. Knestout in a press release. “We believe this to be the best course for our diocese to reach a just reconciliation with our victim survivors.”
Richmond attorney Kevin Biniazan represents nine clients who made sexual abuse claims through the program.
The program was open to individuals who were victims of sexual abuse as a minor by an ordained priest of deacon before 1974, according to the diocese’s website.
Additionally, claimants may not have previously settled or litigated a claim “to a final conclusion” against the Richmond diocese.
Though the program was just announced earlier this year, Biniazan retained his first client seeking to pursue a sexual abuse claim against a former Richmond priest last year after being “triggered” by a letter from the diocese stating that her complaint – which she filed in 2002 – had been “substantiated.”
“Some [of my clients] had brought these issues to the diocese many, many years before,” Biniazan said. “Those claims at the time were met with everything you see in the movies – which is [the diocese] saying ‘You’re wrong, how dare you speak those sins to the church.’”
Biniazan said the letter his clients received indicated the diocese had kept track of sexual abuse complaints and claims over the years.
“Ultimately, I think the meaning of the letter was to say, ‘You were right and we were wrong,” Biniazan said.
Currently in Virginia, individuals who were victims of sexual abuse as minors have 20 years from their 18th birthdays to file a civil lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires.
But there are caveats to this law. For example, if an individual was sexually abused while incapacitated, that individual also has 20 years to file their civil lawsuit once they are no longer deemed incapacitated (i.e., awaken from coma or otherwise regain mental competency).
In other scenarios, victims who were sexually abused as minors have 20 years to file suit once a connection to the sexual abuse is communicated by a licensed physician, psychologist or clinical psychologist.
“[Sexual abuse cases] are a very fact-intensive, searching process in order to figure out what law, if any, applies to the case,” Biniazan said.
For Biniazan’s clients – who were all at least 50 and had been aware of their incidents of sexual abuse for more than 20 years – their statute of limitations window had run out.
“[My clients’] statutes passed many moons ago. They didn’t really have any other recourse except to hope that a claims program would come through,” Biniazan said.
Though the diocese’s announcement of its claims program was made in time for Biniazan’s clients, it doesn’t come without its criticisms. According to Biniazan, other diocese claims programs – such as the Portland Archdiocese’s 2012 claims program – will establish financial limitations on how much sexual abuse victims may be compensated for the claims.
Others compensation programs have set “per victim limits” on how much claimants may be compensated.
Still other programs, such as the New Jersey Independent Victim Compensation Program in 2019, reveal where the funds for the claims programs are coming from.
“No public money will be used to pay eligible claims. Necessary funds are expected to be provided through loans, insurance, self-insurance funds and the sale of property,” according to an Archdiocese of Newark press release.
Biniazan said these limitations are set to create transparency in some ways.
The Richmond diocese offered none of the above.
“There was no transparency on the front end on how [the Richmond diocese] was going to fund the claims program or what could be expected from victims going through the claims program,” Biniazan said. “It’s a little bogus. If you really want these people to have an opportunity to come forward, it’s unfair to deny them for decades and then give them just two months to get their act in order.”
Biniazan noted that lack of transparency can cause clients to undervalue their claims.
The two-month limit felt even shorter with the onset of COVID-19. Communications with clients and claims administrators were complicated as in-person meetings shifted to Zoom. Medical records were harder to obtain as psychiatric offices closed down. And a few of Biniazan’s clients contracted COVID-19, making meetings more difficult to schedule.
Additionally, the lack of personal communication took an emotional toll on his clients, Biniazan said.
“There’s a big difference between turning on a camera and calling a client who is sobbing… And being in the room with the claims administrator to see what the client is experiencing for themselves,” Biniazan said.
Biniazan said he and other attorneys requested the diocese to extend the filing deadline in light of the pandemic.
The diocese denied their requests.
The program was independently administered by BrownGreer PLC, a Richmond-based firm that specializes in settlement administration. The Richmond diocese would not reject or change the administrator’s decision in any way, according to the program’s website.
“Because the Program is still open, and out of respect for the participants, it would be premature for me to comment at this time,” said Lynn Crowder Greer, the designer and administrator of the claims program, in an email.
Leslie Winneberger, the attorney representing the Richmond diocese, also declined to comment until the program has concluded.
“The reason these claims programs are so important is that they fill a hole in the justice system, which is this decades long inadequacy in recognizing that the standards statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims is insufficient,” Biniazan said.
The Richmond diocese did not respond to a request for comment.
This report was updated Oct. 16.