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42 sex abuse cases ordered to trial

August 25, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge ruled Friday that 42 lawsuits filed by people alleging sexual abuse by Catholic priests here can go to trial, which could goad the Catholic Diocese of San Diego into settling those and other suits.

Andrea Leavitt, lawyer for a group of claimants, called the ruling by Judge Louise De Carl Adler a victory for victims of sexual abuse, many of whom have spent years seeking damage payments from the diocese.

"The victims are very encouraged," Leavitt said. "And they are very grateful that the court has the wisdom to grasp the gamesmanship the victims have been subjected to for years by the diocese."

Adler, in her ruling, said she will decide at a hearing Sept. 6 whether to throw out the diocese's bankruptcy lawsuit.

In February, as the first of the suits was about to go to trial, the San Diego diocese, with 1 million Catholics, became the largest in the nation to seek protection in Bankruptcy Court.

The Bankruptcy Court blocked the suits from going to trial. But Adler has been increasingly skeptical of the diocese's assertions that it could become insolvent if it had to pay damages to the 150-plus claimants. She has also criticized the diocese's financial record-keeping as being designed to mask the diocese's true worth.

Diocese attorneys have offered a $95-million settlement with 150-plus people who have filed claims. But Adler noted in her ruling that this is "far below the historic statewide average" of payments when abuse victims sue in state court.

The judge suggested that the diocese was "forum shopping," hoping that a settlement reached as part of a bankruptcy filing would cost less than one reached in a trial court.

The 42 lawsuits represent 58 claimants. In all, the diocese faces 127 lawsuits.

Diocese lawyers argued that Adler does not have the authority to send the 42 lawsuits back to the Superior Court for trial. Adler said there is a compelling public interest in settling claims involving the sexual abuse of children.

Claimant attorneys have said the diocese filed for bankruptcy to stop the suits from going to trial and spare Bishop Robert Brom from having to testify.

Brom and his lawyer did not return calls Friday.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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