LOS ANGELES – About 800 people statewide took advantage of a one-year window in 2003 to file molestation lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.
The lawyers say negotiations over the claims could yield one of the largest clergy abuse settlements in the nation’s history.
The initial estimate came as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to release the results of an audit today identifying how well the nation’s 195 dioceses have complied with the church’s 2-year-old charter addressing the clergy sex abuse scandal.
About 500 of the cases are against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, while another 175 are spread among the dioceses of Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino, said attorney Ray Boucher, whose office is handling filings for 320 plaintiffs in Southern California. About another 125 are against dioceses in Northern California, including the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
In some cases, the dioceses are not yet sure of the total number of lawsuits they face. At least one diocese was still being served with new lawsuits Monday, five days after the official filing deadline of Dec. 31, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was still sorting through its cases. The Diocese of Monterey sent paralegals to a number of counties Monday to try to tally the lawsuits against it, a spokesman said.
Boucher has said a settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles could surpass the $85 million the Archdiocese of Boston is paying, currently the largest in the country.
“What we don’t know is how many people came forward of whom we were unaware,” said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese. “But we have a great desire to deal with these claims in mediation and try to reach a settlement for all claims involved.”
The flood of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits.
Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthday or three years after a time they could show they discovered they had emotional problems linked to molestation.
Those who accused priests of abuse were frustrated in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that erased the statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases. That ruling led the state to overturn convictions or drop charges against hundreds of state molestation suspects.
Tamberg said many of the claims of sexual molestation brought against the church during the past year are “exaggerated, and some are demonstrably false.” Others are impossible to defend, he said, because the alleged abuse occurred decades ago.
The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops plans to release the results of an audit today that will grade dioceses on how well they complied with 17 articles agreed upon by bishops in 2002 at a meeting in Dallas to address clergy abuse.
The audit was conducted by The Gavin Group, a Boston-based independent auditor hired by the bishops, over the course of six months.
Alleged victims and their attorneys called the audit a “whitewashed report” because investigators got most of their information from interviews with the bishops themselves.
Mary Grant, an alleged abuse victim and spokeswoman for the support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it is unlikely that bishops would be forthcoming with auditors while they are at the same time fighting in court to keep the personnel files of suspected abusers private.
“The bishops are making the rules … and we’ve seen over and over again that when bishops make the rules they really aren’t bound to follow them,” she said. “It’s almost like a public plea bargain.”