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O.C. Priest-Abuse Talks to Resume

Diocese, attorneys work nearly 12 hours to forge a settlement for as many as 100 alleged victims.

June 15, 2004|Jean Guccione and William Lobdell | Times Staff Writers

Locked inside the 17th floor of a Los Angeles courthouse, two judges and a small army of attorneys worked day and night Monday attempting to craft a settlement that would pay tens of millions of dollars to as many as 100 people who said they were sexually abused by priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

A settlement could not only resolve the cases against the Orange diocese, but also set a model to be followed in resolving about 500 cases pending against the much larger Los Angeles archdiocese, lawyers said.

Negotiators met from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., adjourning without a settlement but with plans to continue talking.

Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown increased his previous offer of about $40 million to settle the cases by an unspecified amount Monday, according to those close to the confidential talks.

If Brown's original offer had been accepted, the $40-million settlement would have been the second-highest by a diocese in the nation. In 2003, Boston paid $85 million to 552 victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Throughout the day, retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, in shirt-sleeves, shuttled among three conference rooms in the Central Civil West courthouse near downtown Los Angeles, delivering proposals and counterproposals to three groups: attorneys for alleged victims, diocesan officials and insurance carrier representatives. They took no breaks for lunch or dinner.

"We will turn over every rock and tree to find a resolution ...." said Raymond P. Boucher, a Beverly Hills attorney who is acting as liaison counsel for plaintiffs throughout Southern California. "Everybody has issues."

Both sides suggested that the church's insurance companies were resistant to providing money to reach a settlement.

"To the insurers, it's [about] holding onto the blood money for as long as they can," Boucher said. And in a letter to parishioners Sunday, Brown also pointed to the companies: "It is unclear whether or not our insurers will contribute to a settlement at a meaningful level," he said.

Lawyers for the insurance companies left the courthouse about an hour before negotiations ended. They declined to comment, and it was unclear what their departure meant for the prospect of a future deal.

But John Manly, an attorney representing 30 alleged victims with cases against the Orange diocese, said church officials were unfairly using the insurance carriers as a scapegoat.

"The Orange diocese is one of the wealthiest in the country," Manly said. "They have cash, stock and for-profit real estate holdings to resolve all of the pending sexual abuse victims' claims. They are hiding behind their dispute with their insurance carriers rather than making an honorable and expeditious resolution with the victims."

Church officials declined to comment on Manly's statement.

Despite the potential size of a settlement, Brown has vowed not to close parishes or schools to raise the money, as some other dioceses have done.

Last month, Brown warned Orange County parishioners that a settlement would force the diocese to tap investments. At the same time, he eliminated nearly 15% of the diocese's central office staff and programs to save $1 million annually.

The cuts were necessary in part, he said, to prepare for the effects of a settlement.

The frenzy of the negotiations Monday marked an abrupt change of pace for the long mediation process that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman has called "glacial."

The push was driven by a court-mandated deadline in late July -- and complicated by vacation schedules -- that could put the lawsuits on track for jury trials if negotiations fail.

In his letter to parishioners Sunday, Brown talked about a "window of opportunity" closing that could lead to "costly, time-consuming trials where the outcomes are unpredictable."

The only California jury to ever reach a verdict in a clergy sex-abuse case awarded $30 million to two brothers in 1998. The Stockton court later reduced the verdict to $13 million, and it was settled with the diocese for $7 million.

Underscoring the seriousness of the negotiations, Brown canceled his trip to a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Conference in Denver this week to be available for final settlement talks, and Lichtman interrupted a vacation to supervise the talks.

Plaintiff attorneys and other observers say the average payout in the Orange cases will influence the worth of 500 lawsuits now in mediation against the Los Angeles archdiocese, the nation's largest. The cases in Los Angeles and Orange -- along with two other Southern California dioceses -- are part of a coordinated negotiation process headed by Lichtman.

Some victims said Monday that they would reject any monetary offer if it didn't also include the public release of the church's internal documents dealing with accused priests.

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