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Church Abuse Costs Mount

A $25-million payout to 243 victims in Kentucky is a fraction of pending claims nationwide. More huge settlements are expected.

June 14, 2003|Rachel Zoll | Associated Press Religion Writer

The $25.7-million settlement that the Archdiocese of Louisville agreed this week to pay to victims of clerical sexual abuse ends one high-profile legal fight for the Roman Catholic Church. But the 243 people covered by that agreement represent just a fraction of outstanding claims nationwide, which guarantees more financial pain ahead for U.S. dioceses.

In the past year, about 1,000 people have come forward with new allegations against dioceses across the country, according to Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

More than 500 abuse claims are pending in the Archdiocese of Boston alone. In California, where state lawmakers have abolished the time limit on abuse lawsuits for this year only, hundreds of new claims are expected.

"It's going to be a substantial period of time -- years -- before this is over," said Steve Rubino, a longtime victims' attorney from New Jersey.

Even dioceses such as Louisville, which have agreed to multimillion-dollar payouts, may see more lawsuits.

The money from the Kentucky settlement announced Tuesday is to be shared among people who had accused priests and church employees of child sex abuse.

But the cases were not filed as a class-action suit, which would have set a time limit for plaintiffs to claim their share of a settlement. Abuse lawsuits are filed separately -- and nothing bars more alleged victims from suing in Louisville, even after agreements have been reached with others.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement after the Louisville settlement was announced Tuesday that "we are certain there are still dozens of wounded victims in the Louisville diocese who remain trapped in silence," and encouraged them to come forward.

David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network, said it is common for victims in the same diocese to await the outcome of someone else's lawsuit before filing one themselves.

"The last thing they want is to be hurt again. They say, 'I'm going to sit tight and see how this works out,' " Clohessy said. "People think these lawsuits come in a deluge. It's just the reverse."

Some state legislatures are taking action that increases the chances for more litigation. Bills that would extend time limits for civil suits are awaiting governors' signatures in Illinois and Missouri.

In Illinois, Rubino predicted that hundreds of new abuse claims would be filed in that state alone if the proposed changes become law.

All these uncertainties put dioceses in a precarious financial position. It is nearly impossible for them to accurately estimate their potential costs from the lawsuits. And, as in Louisville, many face claims that are so old their insurance does not cover the payouts.

The Louisville Archdiocese's is the latest of at least four multimillion-dollar lawsuits settled by U.S. dioceses since last September, with the church shelling out more than $55 million in them alone.

Estimates of the amount that dioceses have paid to abuse victims in the past two decades go as high as $1 billion.

"If the Archdiocese of Boston breaks the bank to pay for whatever cases are pending now, tomorrow another lawyer could file another 50 cases," said Patrick Schiltz, dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, who has defended dioceses in scores of abuse cases.

"And when you settle any case, every plaintiffs' lawyer in the country treats that as a floor at which they can negotiate the next one," Schiltz said. "You don't know how much you can afford."

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