Friday, September 7, 2007

Myth of the money-grubber victim

Until recently, most priest abuse lawsuits in Missouri got resolved for between $15,000 and $40,000, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday. This is the typical amount in most states, and my rough impression is that it averages even less in cases involving Baptist clergy.

People hear more about the big settlements in the few states that have favorable laws – states such as California. But these Missouri numbers are what it’s like in most places.

Well…$20,000 or so isn’t exactly chump change. Is that what you’re thinking?

Consider this. To even get started, the victim often has to put up several thousand dollars or more of their own money in investigatory costs, court costs, and court reporter fees. (It’s not as if the church or denomination is going to help you find the guy.) Then, if you wind up getting some amount from the lawsuit (and many get nothing), the attorney will take about 40 percent (and more-than-likely it will be well-earned since church lawyers, who get paid by the hour, tend to make these cases as difficult as possible). What’s left after the expenses and the attorney’s percentage is usually not even enough to cover the victim’s counseling costs. Maybe around $8000.

Once again, Baptist victims are at a disadvantage to Catholic victims. Most dioceses now provide funds for counseling as a matter of moral obligation and regardless of what may happen in any lawsuit. But for Baptist victims, any money for counseling comes out of the lawsuit’s recovery.

So why bother? For Baptist abuse victims, it is virtually the only way to bring a clergy-perpetrator into the light and warn others. The denomination provides no means for reporting abuse; the perpetrators’ churches are almost always hostile to the victim; and Baptist leaders consistently turn a blind-eye and do nothing.

This leaves the victim with a lousy choice. (A) You can finally just accept that Baptist leaders aren’t going to do anything, give up, and walk away while your perpetrator stays in the pulpit with other kids still looking up to him and trusting him. (B) You can put yourself through the misery of filing a lawsuit about something profoundly personal and deeply traumatic, and with little chance of success.

If you choose (A), you’ll continue to have nightmares about him doing it to others, but maybe the nightmares will wane after awhile…or maybe they'll just blend in with your other nightmares...or maybe you’ll be able to numb yourself to it somehow. If you choose (B), church lawyers will probably make your life a living hell, but maybe the lawsuit will allow you to gather enough documentation or testimony that a reporter will write about it, allowing you to expose your perpetrator and warn others.

I don’t blame victims whichever choice they pick. I blame the denomination for refusing to provide any other choice.

If you do file a lawsuit, then you’ll be castigated by people who say you’re doing it just for the money…even though the reality is that there is seldom much money to be gained. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out, state laws make it almost impossible for victims to win, and churches know this. It has nothing to do with the truth of the victims’ claims. It’s just because the psychological trauma makes most victims too slow about bringing their claims.

In Texas, many victims can’t even find lawyers who will take their case if they’re older than 28, which most clergy abuse victims are by the time they’re talking about it. For most lawyers, it’s just too obvious that these aren’t likely to be money-making cases.

But still the myth persists that victims are in it just for the money.

So ask yourself this. If you’re a parent, is this an opportunity you would want for your kid -- to be repeatedly molested, raped or forcibly sodomized by a trusted minister for the lucky chance to possibly recover $8000 in counseling costs many years later in their traumatized life? No? Then how much would it take? What amount would be enough to make you think it was a good opportunity?

That’s a question Southern Baptist president Frank Page ought to ask himself the next time his brain-disconnected mouth decides to publicly attack clergy abuse victims as “opportunists.”

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