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$660-million settlement in priest abuses

L.A. Archdiocese's payout to 508 claimants is the largest in the sex scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.

July 15, 2007|Joe Mozingo and John Spano | Times Staff Writers

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed Saturday to a $660-million settlement with 508 people who have accused priests of sexual abuse, by far the biggest payout in the child molestation scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church nationwide.

"Some of the victims have waited more than five decades for a chance at reconciliation and resolution," said Raymond Boucher, the main attorney for the plaintiffs. "This is a down payment on that debt long overdue."

The agreement will end all of the pending abuse litigation against the most populous archdiocese in the U.S.

"It's been a long, hard slog," said church attorney J. Michael Hennigan. "I'm delighted to see it's come to a conclusion."

Lawyers had been slated to go to court Monday for the first of 15 scheduled civil trials pitting alleged victims against the archdiocese and individual priests. Settling before the legal marathon was considered particularly urgent because the archdiocese faced potential punitive damages, as well as the prospect of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony having to testify.

Although the settlement will effectively end a chapter in the sad saga of clerical abuse that has spanned decades, the resolution will come at a huge cost to the church. More than $114 million has been promised in previous settlements, bringing the total liability for clergy misconduct in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to more than $774 million. The figure dwarfs the next largest settlements in the U.S., including those reached in Boston, at $157 million, and in Portland, Ore., at $129 million.

Hennigan said the archdiocese expected to pay $250 million in cash, with the balance coming from insurers and religious orders.

"Parish assets will not be touched, and the mission of the church will be impacted but not crippled," he said.

Mahony had previously fought victims, their attorneys and prosecutors demanding confidential personnel files that tracked the problems of accused priests and the church hierarchy's reaction to them. As part of the settlement, the archdiocese agreed it will no longer contest the release of files to the public, one of the attorneys in the lawsuits said. A private judge will mediate any objections from individual priests.

Some abuse victims expressed mixed feelings about the settlement, which will give the priests' accusers an average of about $1.3 million each. The agreement will spare plaintiffs the need to testify in court, but at an advocacy group's news conference outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, Mary Ferrell, 59, said it nevertheless stirred up old pain.

"That amount of money is impressive in that it shows tremendous guilt," she said. "But I didn't file [the suit] for the money.... I would give back the money if I could have my childhood back."

The settlement was welcomed by some national observers.

"The diocese has finally conceded the fact that everyone needs to move on," said Anne Burke, an Illinois Supreme Court justice and former chairwoman of the National Review Board, a panel of lay Catholics formed by U.S. bishops in 2002 in response to the scandal.

Burke said negotiations for the Los Angeles settlement were undoubtedly more complex than many in other dioceses, "but I also think it was prolonged longer than it should have been because the diocese proceeded to fight. Consequently, it's been a long, long time

The settlement will resolve the last of about 570 total claims of abuse against 221 priests, brothers, lay teachers and other church employees spanning the last 70 years. The pact will be presented for final approval Monday to L.A. County Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz, who had been scheduled to try the first case.

With so many plaintiffs, so much money at stake and the archdiocese frequently at odds with its insurers, negotiations were especially tense over the last few days.

Two major insurance carriers would not stipulate to pay anything until Friday afternoon, when they suddenly agreed to the offer on the table, according to one attorney, who asked not to be named because he was speaking before the settlement was announced.

After the Associated Press first reported Saturday morning that a settlement had been reached, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests scheduled a news conference, canceled it and then scheduled another.

A church representative at one point confirmed a settlement, only to call back minutes later to say it was off.

The accusations of molestations in the archdiocese were part of a national scandal that had been simmering for decades.

However, it wasn't until 2000 that the silent epidemic of priestly abuse exploded into public view.

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