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Plaintiffs Back Clergy Abuse Case Settlement

Enough of the 552 alleged victims agree to an $85-million deal that Boston officials offered.

October 21, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Lawyers for hundreds of alleged clerical sexual abuse victims said Monday that enough plaintiffs had signed off on an $85-million settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for the deal to take effect.

The agreement, reached in early September, required signatures from 80% of the 552 plaintiffs. If enough signatures had not been obtained by Thursday's deadline, the agreement would have been voided.

Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney representing about 120 clients in the current case against the archdiocese, said Monday that he was submitting 114 signed agreements to mediators and church lawyers.

"I was told that if I submitted my 114, we'd be beyond the 80% threshold," said Garabedian, who served on a task force of lawyers representing victims and the church; that panel negotiated the agreement.

Individual awards for those who have signed off on the deal will be determined through arbitration beginning today. Those judgments will range from $80,000 to $300,000, depending on the nature and duration of the alleged abuse, according to guidelines of the agreement. Those who opted not to sign the agreement can take their cases to trial.

From Rome -- where he had attended the beatification of Mother Teresa over the weekend -- Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley said he was pleased that the agreement had been ratified by the required number of plaintiffs.

"I hope that in the next few days, even more of the plaintiffs will agree to enter into the process," O'Malley said in a statement issued by the archdiocese here. However, O'Malley continued, "I realize, of course, that much work remains to be done."

Plaintiff Gary Bergeron, 41, said the agreement was merely an acknowledgment by the church that it had erred in dealing with pedophile priests in the past and was now "willing to make some changes."

Bergeron said he anguished before signing the agreement last week.

"It was a very, very hard decision for me," said Bergeron, "because I don't like the process. To go through all this to get this symbolic amount -- and now to have to sit through arbitration, telling your story once again. I've told my story hundreds of times in the past two years. But now I am going to do it for money, and that thought makes me nauseous."

Bergeron said he felt his only alternative would have been civil litigation, "and I don't know what I would have been able to accomplish by that. It is no longer about placing the blame. We know where the blame lies."

Ann Hagan Webb, a psychotherapist who serves as head of the Massachusetts chapter of Survivors of Those Abused by Priests, said many plaintiffs told her they were signing the agreement "because they feel they have no other choice."

For the most part, Webb said, "people went to civil suits as a last resort because they couldn't get justice any other way. They couldn't go through the criminal justice system because of statutes of limitations -- and the only thing the church understands is in their pocketbooks."

The sexual abuse scandal broke here almost two years ago after documents filed in a criminal case against Father John Geoghan revealed the church had known for decades about his misconduct. Rather than removing the Boston priest from work involving contact with children, church officials reassigned him to new parishes.

Broader investigation showed that the church's shielding ofGeoghan was no exception. Later, a widespread pattern of covering up sexual abuse complaints came to the surface.

Hundreds of priests across the country resigned from parish duty as the scandal rippled across the Catholic Church. Lawyers for local dioceses admitted to having paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements involving complaints that stretched back four decades.

The settlement taking effect this week was reached less than two months after O'Malley took the helm of the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese.

Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of alleged clerical abuse victims, said Monday that he was withholding judgment about whether the Boston church would honor the $85-million settlement. "They still haven't come up with the money, don't forget," he said.

But most of all, Garabedian said, "The victims should be proud of themselves for making the world aware of the wrongful acts of priests and their supervisors. The victims are the heroes here."

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