Drawing on data from the extraordinary archive of Catholic sex abuse at Bishopaccountability.org, the San Diego Tribune recently published the top 10 sexual abuse settlements by the Catholic Church in the United States. The numbers are large in the aggregate: the church paid $1.553 billion total, with $960.94 million paid to 2,458 survivors. On average, each victim received $391,000 after attorneys’ fees.

These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg as many of the victims did not receive full compensatory damages, because the dioceses pooled claims through bankruptcies or other means and avoid individual trials, thereby lowering per-victim recoveries. The cost to the church is actually higher than $1.5 billion, because it has also had to pay for its lawyers (especially for the bishops who take a scorched earth approach against the victims). They also have covered some therapy. Accordingly, Church costs have been estimated at $4 billion. The victims’ expense has not yet been aggregated by social scientists, but it is certainly well beyond $4 billion given that approximately 20-25% of children are sexually abused and the array of negative effects include addiction, alcoholism, depression, PTSD, and eating disorders, among many others.

These numbers are misleading on the surface, however, because they focus on a truncated stream of funds. Let’s expand the field of examination to understand better the economics of sex abuse. At the first level, for the nearly 2,500 victims from the top ten settlements, cost of the sex abuse was shifted from the victim and onto the institution that created the conditions for the abuse. But it is inaccurate to assume that the victim was in fact bearing the full burden of the cost of the abuse. Families also bear the brunt. As does society, through Medicaid, Medicare, and other forms of medical and welfare assistance. Not to mention the burden imposed on the healthcare system and employers when a survivor needs rehab, time off, or other treatment.

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton


Marci A. Hamilton is a Fox Distinguished Scholar in the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania and the CEO and Academic Director of the nonprofit think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect, CHILD USA, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children.