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Judge Seeks to Expedite Sex Suits

Church's attorneys are ordered to produce data on priests accused of abuse, while plaintiffs' lawyers will provide list of claimants.

January 09, 2003|William Lobdell and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

In an effort to head off a potential flood of litigation, a Los Angeles judge ordered attorneys Wednesday to begin producing personnel documents on more than 100 Roman Catholic priests facing molestation lawsuits in Southern California.

In return, church lawyers will receive the names of those who say they are victims of sexual abuse by priests and details of their claims so that the church can begin preparing a defense.

"What I am encouraged about is the Los Angeles Archdiocese has seen what happened in Boston, and I don't think they want to go that way," said Raymond P. Boucher, a Beverly Hills attorney who represents about 200 victims.

The move toward detente has been orchestrated by Judge Peter D. Lichtman, who presided over meetings of 19 lawyers for more than two hours Wednesday, mostly behind closed doors, before reaching the compromise.

In an unusual move, Lichtman took the bench after meeting privately with each side and described how the talks were progressing.

He said, as in all mediation, the settlement negotiations between the parties would remain confidential.

Outside the courtroom, Costa Mesa attorney John Manly said he and other plaintiffs' lawyers would try to force the unsealing of church documents as a condition of settlement.

Many settlements -- in which parties jointly agree to drop litigation, the way in which most lawsuits end -- involve pledges of confidentiality by both of the parties.

Both sides said it may take three to four months before they will know whether mediation is possible to resolve the majority of cases.

In the meantime, lawyers representing victims have agreed to withhold filing new suits.

A law that took effect Jan. 1 lifts the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse lawsuits for one year.

Attorneys expect hundreds of suits to be filed over the next 12 months. Meanwhile, two lawyers asked Chief Justice Ronald M. George to consolidate potential litigation against all 12 dioceses of the Catholic Church in California in Lichtman's courtroom.

Attorneys for both sides will meet within the next three weeks to devise a plan for managing the complex litigation.

The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 25.

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