Settlement process winding down
During his 14 years on the State Supreme Court bench, the Honorable Robert J. Lunn served for 10 years as a trial court judge followed by four years as an appellate court justice.
In the spring of 2018, the Diocese of Rochester hired Lunn, who retired in 2008 from the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, to administer its compensation process for alleged victims of sexual abuse by diocesan personnel.
“I think over the years … I’ve developed and continued a reputation for being fair and impartial and not tilting one way or another,” Lunn told the Catholic Courier. “I believe that’s what went into their decision to ask me to act as administrator.”
The process for each case began with an investigation by McCabe Associates, a Gates-based private investigation and security consulting firm, which turns over its findings to Lunn. He then reviews the case files and interviews the alleged victim as well as his or her attorney, if any.
“I would interview (the alleged victim) with the benefit of having read the initial investigator’s report, which often raised questions I wanted to clarify,” Lunn explained, noting that diocesan personnel do not participate in the interviews, which “was one of the rules I insisted on when I agreed to participate.” .
The judge said his time on the state Supreme Court prepared him for the interview process, yet he still encountered some surprises along the way. The experiences recounted by victims were very intense and traumatic, and early in the interview process, Lunn said he had nightmares about what he’d heard.
“I’ve spent my whole career judging credibility, and there was no doubt in my mind these people were being very candid and truthful when they came before me,” he said. “I was surprised at the lifelong emotional effects this has had on the alleged victims.”
After interviewing each claimant, Lunn wrote a determination outlining whether the person should receive a financial settlement from the diocese and, if so, recommending a specific amount to be awarded. In this way, his role as an administrator differs from that of a mediator or arbitrator, Lunn noted.
“I make a decision, and whatever I decide will be final. There’s no right of appeal. There’s no necessary meeting of the minds,” he said.
Claimants are free to opt out of the settlement process if they disagree with Lunn’s determinations, and remain free to pursue any legal options that may be open to them.
“If they don’t like my number, they can walk away from it,” he said.
The diocese has agreed to accept Lunn’s determinations without appeal.
“They are bound by my recommendation if the alleged victim accepts it,” the judge explained.
Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor, noted that those whom Lunn awarded settlements “were free to accept or reject (the proposed settlements) within 30 days.”
If a claimant chooses to accept Lunn’s determination, he or she signs a release agreeing not to pursue legal action against the diocese regarding the alleged abuse, and the diocese issues a check for the amount set by Lunn.
The framework for the process changed Feb. 14 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act, which in August will open a one-year window into New York state’s statute of limitations on civil suits related to sexual abuse of children.
Prior to the legislation’s passage, alleged victims with time-barred claims had little — if any — legal recourse. But starting in August they will have one year to file cases even if the civil statute of limitations on their claims has long passed.
In light of this new legislation, in mid-March the diocese stopped accepting new cases into the settlement process, although Lunn continued to work on cases that already were in process.
The judge had written determinations on 19 cases as of May 24 and was scheduled to hear his final case within the next few days.
Father Condon said in 13 additional cases, claimants with counsel elected to proceed toward settlement with the diocese after the investigation phase of the process. Within each group, some claimants accepted the settlements that were offered and some did not, he said.