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Orange Bishop to Apologize in Huge Abuse Settlement

A record-setting $100-million agreement in the Catholic Church's sex scandal also will make confidential files public.

January 04, 2005|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Hours after agreeing to pay $100 million and make public secret files of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Bishop Tod D. Brown on Monday knelt in prayer for the victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"We have done this in the larger hope of reconciliation and healing," Brown told about 100 worshipers at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. "We hope that our actions can restore the trust that many have lost in the leaders of the church."

Earlier in the day, Brown formally agreed to a deal that amounted to the nation's largest between the church and alleged sexual abuse victims since the scandal broke three years ago.

Payments to the alleged victims will range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each, according to Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for those who were suing.

The settlements to the 90 people who sued average $1.1 million each, with their attorneys keeping up to 40% of the payment as fees.

Under the agreement, the diocese does not admit legal liability, though Brown has agreed to personally apologize to each of the alleged victims. Two priests whose actions are covered by the settlement remain in the ministry, one in Santa Barbara and one in Laguna Woods.

Brown has been widely praised as the first bishop in California to resolve sex abuse claims against the Catholic Church.

"I hope that what we have done -- the changes we have made in our policies and our personnel practices -- will guarantee that, as much as is humanly possible, these things will never happen again," Brown said in a courthouse news conference Monday in downtown Los Angeles.

The deal ends two years of intense negotiations without a trial. Many observers say it also puts pressure on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other U.S. bishops to follow Brown's lead -- at roughly $1 million per claim -- though Boucher said Monday that it's unlikely.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese faces 544 claims by people who sued in 2003 under a state law that allows all victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue no matter how old their allegations.

Some who settled Monday will get the smallest amount -- $500,000 -- because they may also collect damages from the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other religious entities. Some of the alleged abuse took place before 1976, the year the Diocese of Orange, covering Orange County, was created out the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

The parties agreed to the deal in principle last month. Negotiations over details continued, including public disclosure of diocesan personnel files, which would have been the basis of lawsuit claims that the church hierarchy was negligent in failing to protect parishioners from predatory priests.

The dissemination of similar church files in Boston documented the transfer, rather than arrest, of accused priests to other parishes, where some continued to molest children, and led to Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation as archbishop.

The settlement, negotiated by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judges Owen Lee Kwong and Peter D. Lichtman, and retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, "is historic not only from the standpoint of the amount of money but, more importantly, from the release of the documents," Boucher said.

Under the settlement, Brown, who became bishop in 1998, agreed to open his personnel files to the public. A judge will screen them to remove names of alleged abuse victims, and material protected by legal privileges, such as communications between lawyers and psychologists and their clients.

Mahony's lawyers, by contrast, are preparing an appeal of a court order that the Los Angeles Archdiocese turn over the confidential files of two accused priests to a Los Angeles County grand jury investigating sex abuse by clergy.

The Orange Diocese will contribute a little more than half of the $100-million settlement, according to church lawyers, who declined to be more specific. The rest will be paid by the diocese's eight insurers: Travelers Casualty & Surety Co., Industrial Underwriters Insurance Co., Centennial Insurance Co., Associated International Insurance Co., Stonewall Insurance Co., Allianz Global Risks US Insurance Co., CNA Insurance Co. and Ordinary Mutual.

The settlement protects the church and its insurers from the risks of jury trials, in which multimillion-dollar verdicts could force the church into bankruptcy, as happened in three other U.S. dioceses. The alleged victims receive compensation more quickly, and they are protected because the funds are distributed equitably, rather than according to whoever reaches the courthouse first.

With the settlement, the diocese also will not challenge the constitutionality of the law allowing victims to sue for alleged abuse committed long ago.

A financial council of the Orange Diocese, which includes clergy and laity, is studying how to finance its portion of the settlement, said Maria Schinderle, general counsel for the diocese.

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