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$55 Million Offered by Church to Settle Suits

The Boston Archdiocese action comes days after the new bishop arrives. A lawyer for some of the 540 plaintiffs calls the plan 'a positive step.'

August 09, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The Boston Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church on Friday offered $55 million to settle more than 500 sexual abuse lawsuits, according to lawyers involved in the case.

The possible conclusion to about 540 civil claims pending against the church here comes barely a week after the installation of a new archbishop. Sean Patrick O'Malley pledged in his investiture homily to help resolve the abuse crisis that has rocked the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese for more than a year and a half.

With talks between victims and the church stalled for months, O'Malley immediately appointed a new lawyer, Thomas Hannigan, who previously helped O'Malley settle sexual abuse claims against the diocese of Fall River, Mass. Hannigan did not return a call to his office for comment.

The proposal represents "a positive step in the right direction but is certainly not the end of the journey," said Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 120 of the men and women who say they were molested as children by priests.

Father Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said he was not in a position to discuss ongoing settlement negotiations.

According to a copy of the settlement proposal made available to the Los Angeles Times, each plaintiff would have 30 days in which to accept the offer. The settlement will not take effect unless 95% of the claimants accept it.

Funds are to be allocated according to criteria to be determined by the victims, their lawyers and mediators, "based on the type and severity of abuse and damage sustained by each claimant," the offer states. The archdiocese would not participate in the allocation process.

The proposal also provides for the archdiocese to pay for counseling for abuse victims, "whether or not they opt into the settlement."

It was not clear Friday where the funds for the settlement would come from.

The offer comes on the heels of a report last month by Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly that estimated more than 1,000 children were abused by 250 Boston priests and church officers over six decades.

Reilly said he was unable to bring criminal charges against church leaders because of statutes of limitation -- and because laws in effect at the time of the abuse were inadequate.

But Reilly said Cardinal Bernard Law, who left his post as head of the Boston Archdiocese in disgrace in December, and other church leaders here were ultimately responsible for the mistreatment of children by priests. Law and others in the archdiocese have admitted to reassigning pedophile priests to jobs in which they had contact with children.

"The attorney general's report was a very significant development, combined with the fact that Bishop O'Malley came in with an understanding and a mandate that these claims had to be solved without long-term, scorched-earth litigation," said lawyerJeffrey Newman, whose firm represents more than 200 alleged clerical abuse victims.

David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it was "far too premature to be giving credit to anybody at this juncture."

Clohessy said that "the lion's share of the groundwork has been laid long before [Archbishop O'Malley] was even named -- and the victims, of course, have waited for decades."

The $55-million offer was hard to assess, he asserted, because "church officials have never come clean about their assets." Any "real standard of comparison" is lacking, Clohessy said, adding that "in the end it will be a judgment call on the part of the men and women who have suffered so long."

Bill Gately, the New England coordinator for SNAP, said Friday that "the dollar figure is not what ultimately matters. What ultimately matters is whether or not those who have been deeply wounded feel more vindicated and those who are still at risk feel more secure."

Garabedian, who last fall accepted a $10-million settlement for 86 victims of one alleged pedophile priest in Boston, said Friday that the plaintiffs had formed a committee of five lawyers to work with church mediators on the new proposal. He said settlement discussions would resume Wednesday.

Plaintiffs' attorney Newman called the scheduled meeting of claimants' lawyers and church mediators one of the most heartening aspects of the offer.

"For the first time in a year and a half, they have asked for dialogue and discussion," he said. "I ascribe that directly to the vision of the new archbishop."

Newman said a potential settlement in Boston could serve as a model for other dioceses.

In June, the archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., negotiated a $25.7-million settlement with 243 people who said they had been abused by priests. Scores of other lawsuits are pending around the country. At least 325 priests have been removed or reassigned nationally since the church scandal began.

"Boston is the epicenter," Newman said. "And if the archbishop does a good job here, it could help settle the church sexual abuse crisis around the country."

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