Archdiocese to end tuition aid to children of abuse victims

Posted: March 12, 2014

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will end its eight-year practice of providing parochial school tuition to children of clergy sex-abuse victims at the end of this school year, citing low participation and a desire to refocus its spending on efforts that directly aid the abused.

The news, quietly announced to participants last spring, has drawn the ire of beneficiaries who count the decision as yet another betrayal by church officials. And it has come as a surprise to people who were potentially eligible for help but say they were never told about the program.

"It was the least they could do for me," said Matthew Woodruff, 49, who testified before a Philadelphia jury in 2012 about his childhood abuse at the hands of his parish priest in Bucks County. "I never got a nickel or an apology for what happened to me as a kid."

Since 2010, Woodruff's 15-year-old son and daughter have attended parochial schools in Levittown, most recently Conwell-Egan Catholic High School - a school he says he never could have afforded without the tuition assistance offered to victims.

With that aid cut off, he faced the prospect of uprooting his teenagers in the midst of their high school years.

Church officials rebuffed months of repeated requests to plead his case with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, he said.

But after The Inquirer began asking questions about the tuition-relief program - and Woodruff's case in particular - church officials told him they would continue to cover his children's costs through graduation.

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said Chaput had been considering "for some time" the decision to grandfather Woodruff's children and those of other participating victims through the tuition relief program's closure.

"This action is another clear signal of the archbishop's commitment to victims of clergy sexual abuse," Gavin said in a statement.

The archdiocese first began extending tuition to families of clergy sex-abuse victims in 2006 under Cardinal Justin Rigali.

The decision was made three years after a Philadelphia grand jury excoriated church leaders for repeatedly failing to address accusations against pedophile priests in their ranks.

Since then, 13 children of abuse victims have taken advantage of the offer, accepting $272,000 in tuition payments, church officials said.

Typically, a year's tuition ranges from $3,500 for parishioners with students at the elementary level to $6,150 for a high school student.

Fewer than six victims' families are currently receiving tuition through the program, despite the fact that the archdiocese touts it in literature outlining services offered to clergy sex-abuse victims, Gavin said.

But at least a half-dozen victims and advocates said in interviews that they had never been told of the program.

"I've heard of individual cases where some victims have negotiated unusual assistance with the archdiocese, but I had never heard of a standing tuition program," said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer who has represented several victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese.

One Bucks County participant, who asked to remain anonymous because of his history of sexual abuse, said he only learned the church would pay for his children's schooling through talking to Woodruff. They received four years of assistance before graduating, he said.

"I was a little surprised they were offering it," the man said. "They had been very public with the counseling they offered. Tuition, though, was not really well-publicized."

Once they learned of the program, enrolling could not have been simpler, said Woodruff and the other victim. Each year, they called the archdiocese's Office for Child and Youth Protection and asked to register for the forthcoming school year.

Both men said they were never asked to prove their identities or provide any information about their past allegations against priests.

"They just said they really wanted to show that individual abusers do not represent the whole church," said the Bucks County victim. "They were glad to hear I was still interested in sending my kids to Catholic school, despite what had happened to me."

The decision to end the program in June came last year as the archdiocese struggled to dig itself out of a financial hole that has prompted layoffs, property sales, and the closure of parishes and schools.

Gavin said a financial review of the archdiocese had prompted a reevaluation of how money set aside for victim services was spent.

"The core mission of the [Victim's Assistance Program] is to provide for healing of the individual," he said. "As such, resources were directed toward modes of assistance directly related to that goal."

He stressed that the school payments were just one of the myriad efforts the archdiocese's Office for Child and Youth Protection has made to combat sexual abuse and help victims, including offers of therapy and counseling to victims and mandatory training for its thousands of clergy and lay employees.

To Woodruff, that explanation is lacking.

Despite his abuse, he continued to send his children to Catholic school determined not to let what happened to him at the hands of a priest diminish his faith.

Even with his children's education assured, he still bristles at the church's decision to remove even one benefit offered to victims.

"I didn't raise the issue just to get what I want," he said. "The fact that they changed their position just for a few ... it seems insincere."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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