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Church To Settle With 45 Accusers

The L.A. Archdiocese will pay $60 million, Mahony announces.

Deal `On The Verge'

Hundreds more lawsuits remain to be resolved.

December 02, 2006|John Spano, Paul Pringle and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Friday that the Los Angeles Archdiocese had agreed to pay $60 million to 45 people who said they were abused by Roman Catholic priests -- a payout that would be among the highest per person since the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded four years ago.

But within hours, plaintiffs' attorneys said Mahony had "jumped the gun" in announcing a settlement. Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, confirmed that they were "on the verge of settling" but said "there are still some issues to be ironed out."

"If we are able to put the finishing touches on this deal, then it will be a historic day," he said. "Forty-five victims have been waiting a year to get these cases resolved, and finally it looks like we are on the verge of doing so."

The payments cover just a fraction of the 570 claims filed against the nation's largest archdiocese, setting the stage for payouts in the hundreds of millions of dollars to resolve the cases still pending. The cases settled Friday resolve only allegations of abuse in years the archdiocese was either not insured or was underinsured -- cases that took place prior to 1954 or after 1986.

Mahony, who personally called reporters Friday morning to report the settlement, later expressed surprise at the reaction of plaintiffs' lawyers.

He said he made the announcement after the two sides reached a "handshake deal" in the case in front of a judge earlier this week. Plaintiffs' attorneys might still have details to work out among themselves, he said, but the issues separating the church and the litigants have been resolved.

He said the archdiocese had notified Boucher that it planned to announce the settlement early Friday morning.

Mahony said the planned payout would not adversely affect parish functions or ministries.

"We set aside last year $40 million for this settlement. While it is painful, no parishes are affected," he said. The remaining $20 million would come from limited insurance payouts, as well as $8 million from five religious orders that had members involved in the cases, said attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who negotiated on behalf of the archdiocese.

Mahony said the settlement was "very important to us."

"This is a major effort at healing and reconciliation," he said.

But some advocates for victims of clergy abuse remained skeptical.

"No amount of money can possibly restore the shattered childhoods, the broken trust and the devastated emotional lives of these courageous but wounded men and women," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It's crucial that this settlement be seen as what it is: a purely business decision by Mahony, and nothing more. We must remember that he fought disclosure and settlement at every juncture."

SNAP leaders also questioned Mahony's decision to announce the settlement before documents were signed.

The negotiated settlement does not include any admission of liability on the part of the church, said Boucher. But he added: "You don't pay $60 million unless you admit there is responsibility."

It was unclear how much new light would be shed on a scandal that has reached throughout the archdiocese. Three of four parishes in the 4.3-million member archdiocese -- which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties -- have been served by a priest who at some time in his career was accused of sexual abuse. Mahony has fought in court to keep church personnel records from prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys -- a major point of contention in efforts to reach resolution of all cases still facing the church.

In the settlement Mahony announced Friday, the parties agreed to ask retired California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli to decide which, if any, documents would be released.

The settlement covers all of the cases involving molestations that occurred since Mahony was named head of the diocese in 1985. The cases include claims related to defrocked priest Michael Baker, whom Mahony allowed to remain in ministry even after Baker told the cardinal in 1986 that he had molested children. Baker was later charged with continuing to molest two brothers for more than a decade after his initial confession.

Other settled cases involve three priests also considered among the worst offenders: Richard Allen Henry, Carlos Rene Rodriguez and Michael Edwin Wempe, all of whom have been convicted on criminal charges. Additional cases involving those priests remain pending.

Some of the cases the archdiocese agreed to settle involve priests who were cleared of wrongdoing. Those priests, Edward Dober, Richard Martini and Samuel Orellana, continue in parish work. Attempts to reach the three men Friday were unsuccessful. Donald Steier, an attorney representing 11 accused priests in the settlement, said he was "pleased that these cases are moving forward toward resolution."

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