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Mahony Abuse-Settlement Effort Derided

A deal would cover alleged acts of priests since he took his post. Critics says he's trying to protect his reputation.

January 07, 2006|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Critics assailed Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Friday for trying to settle only a small percentage of the hundreds of sex-abuse legal cases filed against the Los Angeles Archdiocese and questioned why he waited to negotiate seriously until the eve of trial for an accused priest.

"I think it's another media stunt," said Steven Sanchez, a Glendale resident who said he was molested as a teen by the late Father Clinton Hagenbach.

The Times reported Friday that Mahony and lawyers for 45 alleged victims of abuse, after three years of desultory negotiations, are moving toward a settlement that would pay an average of at least $1 million per claim. The settlement, if approved, would involve less than 10% of the more than 560 cases filed against the archdiocese, and would come almost entirely out of the archdiocese's coffers.

Mahony's lawyer said the roughly four dozen cases were selected for settlement because they are largely not covered by the church's insurers, which the archdiocese blames for stalling negotiations to resolve the bulk of the claims. Insurers have said the archdiocese forfeited its coverage by covering up the sexual misdeeds of its priests.

"We do not have the resources to settle more than these cases," J. Michael Hennigan, lead attorney for the archdiocese, said Friday. "We have always said that with respect to the other cases, that we believe we are adequately insured to cover the amount of the remaining obligation."

But San Diego lawyer Irwin Zalkin said Mahony could settle with victims and haggle with insurers later, as Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley did to reach an $85-million sex-abuse settlement three years ago.

"There are a lot of ways to get off the dime," said Zalkin, who represents 50 alleged victims of clergy abuse. "It's really whether Mahony wants to do it or not."

Victim advocates accused Mahony of selectively settling cases to protect his reputation. The proposed deal would cover priests whose alleged acts of abuse occurred after 1985, the year Mahony became Los Angeles archbishop. It could put $1 million or more into the hands of the prosecution's key witness against retired priest Michael Wempe, whose lawyers have admitted that he molested 13 boys decades ago.

Responding to abuse complaints, Mahony sent Wempe to therapy and then assigned him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he allegedly molested another child. Wempe, whose trial is scheduled to begin in two weeks, denies that charge.

"The latest proposal is a weak attempt for Mahony to cover himself for repeatedly looking the other way when abuse occurred," said Julio Gavotti, one of the plaintiffs whose cases are not part of the proposed settlement.

Hennigan called the accusation "nonsense," adding that the insurance companies quit writing policies that covered sexual abuse of minors in 1986.

Some victims and their lawyers say they want, as a condition for settling their cases, the church's confidential files on accused predator priests, which they believe will show that Mahony protected the priests from prosecution or dismissal. The cardinal has apologized for leaving some priests in ministry after suspicions arose.

On Friday, leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests urged plaintiffs in a statement to "hang tough and insist on the disclosure of secret church documents so Catholics and citizens can learn which church officials actively put kids at risk by keeping known predators in parishes."

Raymond P. Boucher, liaison counsel for the plaintiffs, said Thursday that "there are significant financial and nonfinancial issues that have to be addressed before we know whether we are close to a deal." He declined to comment further Friday on terms of the negotiations.

Hennigan also declined to comment on the terms. The lawyer has led a three-year effort to keep the documents secret. His team is preparing to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn lower-court orders for Mahony to open priests' personnel files to authorities investigating criminal wrongdoing.

Gavotti said Mahony's offer to settle with some plaintiffs and not others "further alienates and hurts" those left behind and contradicts his early statements that he planned to reach a global settlement of all cases.

"I think that was just to make things drag out," Gavotti said.

Zalkin pointed out that Mahony supported an effort in San Diego courts to throw out the law the victims used to sue the archdiocese.

"All of the little, dirty tricks they are employing are so contrary to the public rhetoric of trying to settle and being transparent and wanting disclosure," he said.

Hennigan said Mahony has provided the public with "a full and candid appraisal" of the sex-abuse scandal in the archdiocese through his 2003 Report to the People of God and the summaries of confidential priest personnel files, published on the archdiocese's website in October.

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