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$6.5 Million Settles Bulk of Diocese's Abuse Cases

May 23, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — The Diocese of Manchester, N.H., announced a $6.5-million settlement Thursday that resolves most of the sexual abuse cases pending against the Roman Catholic Church in New Hampshire.

The agreement with 61 men and women leaves fewer than a dozen abuse complaints pending against the New Hampshire diocese, said church spokesman Patrick McGee. The church has now settled with 176 individuals in 18 months, with the payouts totaling $15.45 million, McGee said.

All the settlement payments will come from insurance funds, McGee said, stressing that no parish or other church finances are involved.

In a written statement, Bishop John McCormack, head of the New Hampshire diocese, apologized and said he was grateful to resolve the latest group of claims. "I am personally sorry for the hurt they have experienced and I have written to each person expressing my deep regret," McCormack said.

Peter Hutchins, a Manchester attorney who has settled 79 cases against the diocese, called Thursday's agreement "revolutionary, compared to other dioceses around the country."

Rather than litigating, "which would have caused hard feelings, high emotions -- and which would have forced the parties to drift apart," the church negotiated settlements based on "objective criteria" that established individual damages, Hutchins said.

"We knew both sides could bash one another in court for a decade or more, but we all said, 'Let's try to do something better,' " Hutchins added.

"And that's really what happened."

Patrick Ford, a layman active in the New Hampshire diocese, said the relatively swift settlements -- averaging slightly more than $100,000 per victim -- came about because "the bishops here grasped the significance of getting this behind us."

McGee said: "When we very first started this process, Bishop McCormack said this was a pastoral problem, not a legal problem. That was our goal from the beginning."

As a pedophilia scandal unfolded nationwide, the diocese agreed in December to abide by a state attorney general's policy that opened church records on priests accused of molesting children.

But throughout the winter, protesters calling for resolution of dozens of outstanding cases continued to gather each Sunday outside the cathedral in Manchester. McGee said the weekly demonstrations had no influence on the negotiations.

McCormack, once a top aide to then-Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, withstood calls for his ouster in New Hampshire. The demands that he step down heated up after Law resigned in December after a year of battling the clerical abuse crisis.

Hutchins said that with only about a dozen civil cases remaining against the diocese, New Hampshire's Catholic community was breathing a collective sigh of relief.

"It should be," he said. "Let the church be a church."

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