EXCLUSIVE: Leaked transcript shows NY church's attempt to block Child Victims Act

In a 2017 meeting, church leaders discussed the politics of reconciliation.

January 14, 2021, 5:03 AM

When Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the longtime leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, introduced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program to the public in Oct. 2016, he expressed his hope that offering financial settlements to the victims of sexual abuse by clergy would both “promote healing” and “bring closure” after more than a decade of constant scandal.

“It is only appropriate that we take this opportunity to follow Pope Francis and once again ask forgiveness for whatever mistakes may have been made in the past by those representing the Church, even by us bishops,” Dolan said, “and continue to seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed and feel alienated from the Church.”

When Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer Dolan appointed to administer the program in New York City and Long Island privately pitched it more than a year later to the representatives of three Upstate New York dioceses, however, he suggested that Dolan was motivated in part by something else: politics.

“I think the Cardinal feels that it is providing his lawyers in Albany with additional persuasive powers not to reopen the statute,” Feinberg said of the program. “We are already doing this, why bother? Don’t reopen the statute. We are taking care of our own problem. I think that is guiding Cardinal Dolan as well.”

ABC News has obtained the transcript of a confidential Dec. 2017 teleconference in which Feinberg, a prominent mediation expert, alongside his colleague Camille Biros, heralded the benefits of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program Dolan established to leaders and lawyers from the Dioceses of Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester.

Dolan himself is not listed among its participants and does not appear to have been on the call, but Feinberg repeatedly claimed to be familiar with Dolan’s thinking.

Looming over the discussion was the then-ongoing debate in Albany over the Child Victims Act, which proposed to reopen the statute of limitations on civil claims for damages for victims of childhood sexual abuse, potentially exposing the church to hundreds of millions of dollars in additional liability and threatening to bankrupt many of the state’s dioceses.

Dolan was then “worried,” Feinberg said, that lawmakers had already “come very close” to passing it. A growing number of negotiated settlements, however, could help counter arguments in favor of the Child Victims Act, bolstering the position of the church’s lobbyists in Albany that the legislation is unnecessary because the reckoning and restitution is already underway.

“The whole point is to get the release, so we offer $10,000. In Buffalo, maybe $5,000,” Feinberg said. “Get the release. We want to be able to show Albany that people are accepting this money and signing releases. You don’t need to change the statute.”

PHOTO: Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan speaks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan speaks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images, FILE

For abuse survivors and their advocates, Feinberg’s comments cast doubt on whether Dolan’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program was truly designed with either independence or reconciliation in mind.

“The statements, if true, place Cardinal Dolan in a compromising light,” prominent sexual abuse attorney Mitchell Garabedian told ABC News, “and are disrespectful to victims or survivors of clergy sexual abuse everywhere.”

Shortly before the Child Victims Act was expected to pass the legislature, the church withdrew its longstanding opposition to the measure after lawmakers amended the legislation to include victims of abuse by members of public institutions.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act in February 2019, creating a one-year period for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file claims that would have otherwise been time-barred. He later signed legislation extending that so-called look-back window to August 2021 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of people have since filed lawsuits under its provisions against the church and other institutions, leading several New York dioceses to seek bankruptcy protection.

In response to questions from ABC News, Joseph Zwilling, a spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan, told ABC News that the program was established to “address the desire of victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse to find healing and compensation.”

“It was a voluntary program, offering compensation without the need to engage in drawn-out and difficult litigation,” Zwilling said. “The program was very successful in achieving that goal for a large number of victim-survivors who came forward, who expressed their gratitude and relief at the respect and compassion with which they were treated by all involved. The program was offered to state lawmakers as a possible model for an alternative to litigation as passed in the Child Victims Act. We still believe that the program has great merit, and continue to offer it to victim-survivors who desire to participate in the program.”

But he declined to address Feinberg’s comments directly and did not respond to questions about whether those comments accurately reflected Cardinal Dolan’s motivations for introducing the settlement program.

“As far as Mr. Feinberg’s comments, you would have to ask him,” Zwilling said. “Cardinal Dolan was not a participant in that call, and cannot comment on what he may or may not have said.”

When reached by ABC News, Feinberg issued a brief statement touting the “success” of the program.

“Just in the state of New York, we have resolved 1,346 cases and have paid out $258 mil (all funds provided by the NY dioceses),” Feinberg said. “The program has been extremely well received and individual abuse claims continue to be received and processed notwithstanding the change in the NY statute.”

PHOTO: Attorney Kenneth Feinberg speaks on stage at National Museum of American Jewish History, Dec. 19, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Attorney Kenneth Feinberg speaks on stage at National Museum of American Jewish History, Dec. 19, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images, FILE

Dolan, one of the most powerful American cleric in the Catholic Church, has previously dismissed suggestions that the introduction of the settlement program was connected to New York lawmakers’ consideration of the Child Victims Act.

“Look, I can’t wait around wondering what Albany is going to do or not going to do. If I did, I’d never accomplish anything!” Dolan told Catholic New York in Oct. 2016. “But, regardless of what happens in the state Legislature, I believe that the IRCP is the right thing to do, and now is the right time to do it.”

But on the teleconference, Feinberg said the “movement afoot in Albany” was a key reason why Dolan “decided to bite the bullet and create a program.” The benefits of the program, as Feinberg described it, were twofold.

First, it would create a “compensation matrix,” or a range of possible payouts depending on the severity of the alleged abuse, agreed upon by the program’s administrators and the dioceses, Feinberg said, that “affords us wide leeway, wide range, so we could govern the amount of compensation” to victims.

“One very important principle that is guiding that various Dioceses in Manhattan and Long Island is the fear that if the statute is reopened, and there are people who did not participate earlier and sign a release in this program, some of the allegations may resolve on the courthouse steps with a $5,000,000 demand or a $2,000,000 demand,” Feinberg said. “Right now, we have not paid any claim, however horrific, at more than $500,000.”

“Clearly, the Dioceses [sic] wants as many releases at $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000,” Feinberg added, “rather than a $1,000,000 or $2,000,000.”

Feinberg, meanwhile, is highly regarded in the legal community, having been enlisted to oversee the distribution of monetary compensation to victims of a number of high-profile catastrophes — from the September 11th attacks to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

When Dolan introduced Feinberg as the administrator of the settlement program, he assured the public that the “renowned mediator” would have “complete autonomy in deciding compensation for victim-survivors.”

“The archdiocese,” Dolan pledged, “has agreed that it will abide by their decisions.”

PHOTO: Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan speaks to people at the end of the service inside St. Patrick's Cathedral, June 28, 2020 in New York.
Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan speaks to people at the end of the service inside St. Patrick's Cathedral, June 28, 2020 in New York.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

But throughout the private teleconference, Feinberg displayed a coziness with church leaders, a skepticism toward those coming forward to file claims and, at times, even an apparent distain for some alleged victims.

In creating the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, Feinberg said that Dolan “emphasized” that his team would have “absolute, delegated, full authority” to determine eligibility and compensation but added that the Archdiocese worked with them to create both the rules of the program and the compensation matrix.

Feinberg’s colleague Biros suggested that the administrators have remained in close contact with church leaders even as they began processing claims.

“I just want everyone to be aware that once we take over and implement the program, it remains an open dialogue with the Diocese,” Biros said. “We are constantly on the phone with New York, Brooklyn and now Rockville Center. If we have any questions about the priests, the file, the claimant, they are an incredible resource to us.”

Feinberg claimed that some alleged victims were filing what he called “soapbox claims,” or frivolous claims that lacked a history of supporting documentation, which he called both “stressful” and “unfair.”

“Private claimants are increasingly gaming the system by filing … new claims against untarnished clergy or are filing new claims knowing that a previous member of the clergy has already been deemed responsible,” Feinberg said. “’Well, we found another congregate [sic] and we are filing on his behalf, no documentation, no proof, just a bald allegation.’”

He also dismissed the notion that settlements could or should include additional reimbursements for counseling for victims.

“If you asked somebody how to get them to sign a release – counseling or a check? He will take the check,” Feinberg said. “We can say, we get a release, we are done. Look, if someone wants more help, they can pay for it.”

Feinberg appears to have been well aware that alleged victims would feel pressure to accept offers because, prior to the enactment of the Child Victims Act, they had no other legal options.

“If you don’t take what we are offering, you don’t have to, but what is the alternative?" he added. "Maybe Albany will change the law, but they haven’t yet.”