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Sensitive task of putting a price tag on sex abuse

By Mary Wiltenburg | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
October 23, 2003

Nearly 25 years after he says a Catholic priest raped him, John Harris awaits a price tag for his suffering.

What were they worth, he wonders, those dark days of his depression, at the bottom of his struggles with alcohol abuse, when he found he could not make a life with someone he loved. How do you value such sorrow in dollars and change?

Soon he'll know. Harris is one of 552 alleged victims who have spent the past month considering whether to take part in a landmark $85 million settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Now, with enough victims agreeing this week to move forward with the settlement, an independent arbitrator is preparing to weigh the value of their abuse. It is an extraordinary mandate - the first time, attorneys say, that compensation in a large sexual-abuse case has been based on plaintiffs' post-abuse suffering, not just the nature of their victimization.

Many Catholics regard the agreement as a new beginning. But for America, it is also a moment of public reckoning with an issue that is often kept private: the long-term impacts of sexual abuse. And in legal terms, it is raising difficult questions of how justice can be rendered when damages are not clear-cut and the pain is enormous.

"This settlement is a public acknowledgment that yes, a crime was committed here," says David Clohessey, executive director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused By Priests. "But if you're hooked on cocaine, if you can't be intimate, if you have no faith in God, you wake up the day after you sign and you're the same person with the same problems."

Under the settlement with the Boston archdiocese, Harris will have two hours in which to impress upon a professional mediator how seriously he was damaged by abuse. The arbitrator will weigh his story along with others who signed the agreement and then award each of them between $80,000 and $300,000.

Harris hates the whole idea. "I signed because I had to, because it was the best thing to do for my own mental health," he says. "But it feels like signing a deal with the Devil." He's afraid the agreement hasn't hurt the Church enough to force it to protect other kids.

Harris was 21 when a college professor sent him to a priest for counseling. He had just come out as gay and was struggling with the church's condemnation. He hoped the priest would tell him he still belonged. Instead, he says, the priest told him to lie down on the rug.

Over the years, Harris says, he sought to drown the memory in alcohol. Since a major breakdown in 1995 cost him his job, he has been hospitalized for depression several times.

Still, when the clergy abuse scandal broke nearly two years ago, he didn't think it had anything to do with him. One night he saw a victim on the news talking about being abused. The next morning Harris opened the Boston Globe to a photo of the man he identifies as his abuser. The following Saturday, he went to his first protest at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

A woman met him on the steps. "Are you a victim too?" he recalls her asking. "Who was your perpetrator?" He didn't know what the word meant.

Hundreds of protests later, Harris knows full well.

The settlement, he says, should make him and other "alleged victims" into acknowledged survivors.

Still, for all its elaborate language, the document does not contain an explicit admission of fault by the church. Some legal experts say the settlement itself constitutes such an admission.

Victims' struggles with the agreement don't end with its wording. Psychologists argue that assigning a dollar amount to this type of pain can be dangerous, because of the way sexual abuse can uniquely undermine a person's self-worth. Fragile victims, they say, will be tempted to look at their checks and say, "This is all I'm worth?"

Settlement lawyers acknowledge the point, but say this is the best that could have been achieved. Although their agreement sets a precedent, it relies on the sort of calculation that's the basis for much civil law.

"We put dollar amounts on harm all the time," says John Garvey, dean of the Jesuit-run Boston College Law School. Juries and judges regularly calculate the human costs of potentially harmful products or practices; their application can determine the value of limbs or lives lost. The Boston abuse settlement, Dr. Garvey says, applies a similar calculus.

The impact of abuse

The problem with that comparison, victims and their lawyers say, is that the loss of a leg or an arm, while excruciating, is a comparatively straightforward legal problem. There's a formula to determine lost wages, even guidelines by which to compensate "pain and suffering" caused by work and personal opportunities made inaccessible by the injury.

Sexual abuse, by contrast, can attack a person's ability to trust, to form loving relationships, to relate to authority figures - and the consequences of those damages are much harder to trace. Though they often lead to drug and alcohol abuse, strings of failed relationships - and particularly, in the cases of clergy abuse victims, loss of faith - mental health professionals say there isn't a one-to-one correlation between abuse and any of these outcomes.

Harris struggles with that uncertainty. In the end, he says, there's no way to draw a clear line from the priest's betrayal to any single piece of his own suffering. "Maybe I would have wound up in the bars anyway," he says. "Maybe. I'll never know that."

The priest has been charged in numerous other cases.

Because abuse damages are so hard to assess, no one way of allocating settlement funds has yet been reached in the nationwide lawsuits relating to alleged abuse by Catholic priests. In the past year, groups of victims have struck deals with dioceses including Bridgeport, Conn., Louisville, Ky., Spokane, Wash., Providence, R.I., and Manchester, N.H., based on the type and duration of abuse victims claimed.

Though the Boston settlement is the largest both in dollars and number of plaintiffs, the per-victim awards will be substantially less than in some smaller cases.

Subjectivity's challenge

The allocation of the Boston money will depend on victims' ability to articulate the harm they believe their abuse has caused. "If they do well, they'll get more," says Jeffrey Newman, whose law firm represents nearly half the plaintiffs. Though the inevitable subjectivity of this approach worries some critics, Newman says lawyers deliberately designed it to account for vast differences in people's responses to abuse.

Among his clients, a young man who was molested in a church confessional has attempted suicide multiple times, while a victim of rape is coping well in therapy. In a deal that compensated solely by type of abuse, the attorney says, the suicidal young man would receive less money, which could mean less aggressive counseling. That, Newman says, is not fair.

Perhaps. But as he awaits his turn, Harris dreads sitting for two hours with a stranger, trying to present himself in his worst light. He predicts the process will open old wounds for many victims now trying to focus on healing.

Now that he has signed, though, he's not looking back. He considers it a triumph that the settlement, unlike those in the past, does not come with a gag order. He plans to keep speaking out. "That," he says, "is a victory in and of itself."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests