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Judge Consolidates Priest Abuse Cases in 2 Dioceses

The decision to hear all claims in a single courtroom is intended to avoid conflicts.

March 22, 2003|William Lobdell and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

As many as 300 potential sexual abuse cases against the Roman Catholic dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange were ordered funneled into a single courtroom Friday in a move that church lawyers said could help settle all the claims by year's end.

"It is the desire of the archbishop of Los Angeles to get this to be part of our past and no longer part of our present or our future," J. Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the archdiocese, said during a court hearing on a motion to transfer cases to a single judge. The order was made by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle.

At stake is who will get a share of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the church is expected to pay to victims of sexual abuse. The dioceses have $150 million to $500 million in insurance to cover wrongdoing.

But with more than 250 people expected to make claims that they were abused, some lawyers fear that unless the cases are consolidated, the first ones to go to trial would exhaust the available money.

"This is about survival," said plaintiff's lawyer Raymond P. Boucher, pointing to a $30-million jury award in Stockton in a sexual abuse case in which Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, once bishop there, testified. The award was later reduced to $7 million.

"If 10 of these cases go to trial, the archdiocese is out of business," said Boucher, whose firm represents more than 100 clients.

By consolidating, one judge can review the church's insurance coverage, determine the proper compensation for victims and oversee the disbursement of funds, attorneys said.

Otherwise, Berle raised the issue of potential conflicts for lawyers who take their most valuable cases to court first, leaving other victims with reduced settlements as money runs out.

The Catholic Church in California faces potentially hundreds of lawsuits made possible by a new state law that took effect Jan. 1 eliminating the statute of limitations in molestation cases for one year. Plaintiffs attorneys have agreed not to file new lawsuits until mediation is completed with church lawyers.

The coordination order also gives one judge authority to oversee all aspects of the litigation against the church, including whether internal memos on priest misconduct will be disclosed. If cases were handled separately, different judges might make inconsistent rulings on similar issues, such as the church's claim that a prelate privilege bars disclosure of many of its internal documents, creating unnecessary delays.

Berle's order affects only six Los Angeles County and two Orange County cases but sets the stage for a possible coordination of all clergy cases statewide. He scheduled a May 23 hearing to consider a separate motion to coordinate cases against the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino.

A coordinating judge will have wide discretion to break off batches of cases for adjudication anywhere in California.

Some lawyers who opposed statewide coordination argued that some issues are unique to their areas, and that coordination could create unnecessary delays, especially those close to trial.

Attorney Timothy C. Hale expressed concerns that coordination would delay justice for his clients, who alleged they were abused by priests at a Santa Barbara seminary. They are ready for trial in October, and he would prefer a Santa Barbara jury.

Until a coordination judge is assigned, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman will continue to mediate a possible settlement of the eight existing cases. Lawyers who expect to file more lawsuits also are involved in the talks.

Lawyers for the archdiocese have argued that any communications between bishops and priests -- sought by prosecutors and lawyers for victims -- are privileged, and that their surrender would violate the 1st Amendment. State lawmakers are considering whether to freeze the criminal statute-of-limitations until the privilege issue is resolved.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley called on Mahony to follow the lead of Tod D. Brown, bishop of Orange, who turned over records that led to this week's arrest of a former priest on suspicion of child molestation.

"What their strategy is, is to litigate our law enforcement's receipt of these very important records in a trench warfare kind of effort, which has had the effect of delaying for a very long time the prosecution and perhaps civil claims filed by the victims," Cooley said.

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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