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Disagreements persist despite abuse settlement

Mahony says he sought the deal to ease victims' pain. But their lawyers fear the full truth may never be revealed.

July 16, 2007|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Sunday that he decided to settle with hundreds of clergy abuse victims after talking with many of them individually over the last year and realizing how deeply they had been hurt by predatory priests.

Mahony, in his first public statement since the Los Angeles Archdiocese's record $660-million settlement was reached with 508 claimants, said he told the victims, "Your life, I wish were like a VHS tape, we could put the tape in ... and delete these years of difficulty and misery."

But attorneys and advocates for the victims said they were skeptical of Mahony's timing for the settlement, noting that the pact announced Saturday, after 4 1/2 years of negotiations, came just before the first case was set to go to trial, with the cardinal slated to testify. And they said they fear they will never learn the full truth about the accused and those who may have shielded them, including Mahony.

"He avoided the No. 1 thing he fears, which is disclosing under oath how much he knew and how little he did about predatory priests," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

The settlement, which ends all pending abuse litigation against the nation's most populous archdiocese, calls for the archdiocese to provide its internal files on accused abusers to a retired judge, who will determine what should be released to victims and the public. Victims have said the files will document efforts by the church hierarchy to cover up for pedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish without alerting police or parishioners.

But plaintiffs' attorneys say critical details of what exactly will be turned over to the judge have yet to be worked out.

"We have another huge fight ahead," said attorney Katherine Freberg, who represents 109 victims.

Mahony said he would turn everything over to the retired judge, but noted that some documents, such as psychiatric reports that the archdiocese had fought to keep sealed, might not be disclosed publicly. Individual priests are expected to raise legal objections.

"Under California law, these documents are privileged, and there must be a compelling reason to release them," Mahony said. "I leave that to [the judge]."

Mahony, speaking at a news conference at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, called the settlement the end of a long journey that at times left him feeling like he had "reached the bottom."

"I didn't know what to do next," he said. "Everything I did, someone thought was wrong. When you're empty, the only way up is God."

As he has in the past, he apologized for the abuse and pledged to ensure that it does not recur.

"Once again, I apologize to anyone who has been offended, to anyone who has been abused," the cardinal said. "It should not have happened, and it should not happen ever again.

"I apologize because I can't do what I wish I could," Mahony said. "There is no way to go back and give them that innocence that was taken from them."

Adopting safeguards

Mahony said the only "grace" arising from the scandal comes from the safeguards the archdiocese has adopted to prevent future abuse, including fingerprinting and background checks for adults working with children.

"My responsibility is to make sure the church stays safe for all the years to come," he said.

The cardinal and his lawyers will appear in court this morning to explain details of the settlement to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz.

The archdiocese has agreed to pay $250 million, its insurers will pay $227 million, and various religious orders will pay $60 million, Mahony said.

Payment of the remaining $123 million is subject to further negotiation between plaintiffs' lawyers and various religious orders, such as the Claretians, but the archdiocese has guaranteed it will cover anything the orders do not pay.

When combined with cases settled earlier, the total settlement cost for clergy abuse in the Los Angeles Archdiocese will be $774 million -- by far the largest payout resulting from the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church nationwide in 2002. Mahony said parish schools and properties will not be affected.

"We're trying to sell buildings that do not impact the core ministry of the church," Mahony said. "We are not selling any parish properties or parish schools to meet this indebtedness."

Legal maneuvering

Attorney Freberg said part of the reason the amount is so high is that the archdiocese delayed a settlement with scorched-earth legal tactics.

"It has been like painful dental surgery trying to get this information," she said. "Having fought this battle for so long, I am absolutely convinced we will never know the whole story."

As the first half a dozen of her cases were set to go to trial, Freberg said, the archdiocese turned over one file on each abuser marked "personnel," containing routine business matters.

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