Sensitive task of putting a price tag on sex abuse
Nearly 25 years after he says a Catholic priest raped him, John Harris awaits a price tag for his suffering.Skip to next paragraph
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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 Clohessy, 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." [Editor's note: In the original version of this story, David Clohessy's name was misspelled.]
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?"