ST. LOUIS — The Archdiocese of St. Louis can’t estimate how much it has paid so far to people alleging sex abuse by clergy because records going back decades aren’t consistent or accurate in each case, church officials say.
“Over the last few decades, settlements were paid out in a number of ways … so there is not an accurate number that we would be comfortable sharing,” spokesman Peter Frangie said in an email last week.
While a 2013 archdiocesan report identified $10 million in costs related to sexual abuse since 2004, the full extent of the financial impact of abuse allegations is unknown. Public reports identify other cases that were settled out of court for tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but many settlements were confidential, sometimes at the plaintiff’s request.
Overall, Missouri dioceses have paid relatively little in connection with abuse allegations compared with the rest of the country, because state laws make it difficult for alleged victims to take their alleged abusers to trial, said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
Missouri has held that in many circumstances, holding the Roman Catholic Church accountable for priestly sexual abuse violates the First Amendment, or the separation of church and state. Other cases were dismissed because of the statute of limitations.
Only one civil suit against the archdiocese has made it to trial: in 1999, a jury awarded $1.2 million to Henry Bachmann, who claimed the Rev. James Gummersbach abused him at Church of the Immaculate Conception when he was 13 years old. Months later, an appellate court overturned the verdict on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.
In states with less restrictive statutes of limitations, the payouts have been much larger than in Missouri, Clohessy said.
“The norm is six and sometimes seven figures,” he said. “And that’s only because victims can conduct real discovery and expose not just those who commit abuse but those who conceal abuse.”
Advocates of sex abuse victims in recent months have renewed calls for Missouri legislators to follow at least 15 other states that extended or suspended the statute of limitations to allow claims going back decades. The changes follow disclosures over the last year by church officials, including in St. Louis, of the names of accused clergy that have revealed new cases in which the accused were never charged with a crime or sued.
The archdiocese in July and August, released the names of 63 former clergy members with credible allegations of sex abuse of a minor. Of that number, 26 men had never been publicly identified by the church, in court records or in news reports, according to a Post-Dispatch review.
In September, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced his office had identified 163 priests in all four dioceses in Missouri who had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Of the 80 men who were still alive, 46 could not be criminally prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired, Schmitt said. Twelve cases would be referred to local prosecutors, he said.
“As flawed as our justice system is,” Clohessy said about civil suits, “it’s the best way of confirming the truth, identifying wrongdoers and deterring recklessness. And giving survivors the options they deserve for healing.”
Costs associated with sex abuse allegations have had an impact on the archdiocese’s finances, Frangie said. He did not release more details. The archdiocese, which includes St. Louis and 10 eastern Missouri counties, had net assets of $485.5 million at the end of 2018, according to its most recent financial report. Total revenue from all sources was $285.3 million.
“Paying out settlements has had an impact on the financial picture for the archdiocese,” he said, “but what is important is that these settlements have been made in support of the hope and healing of victims and our parish communities.”