BOSTON, Sept. 4 — Boston’s new Catholic archbishop will meet on Saturday with victims of clergy sexual abuse, their attorneys said, fueling optimism that talks to produce a settlement between the church and more than 550 plaintiffs are moving forward.
The meetings between Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley and as many as 10 plaintiffs will be the first in the context of settlement talks, which were restarted soon after O’Malley was appointed to the post in late July after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.
“This is a great opportunity to show the archdiocese that we are dealing with real people here and not just a bunch of numbers,” said Mitchell Garabedian, one of five attorneys on the steering committee that is leading the settlement talks. “It might be a settlement, and it might be back to the drawing board.”
One victim, David Carney, of Rockland, Mass., said he welcomes the chance to speak with O’Malley. “I want to let him know my story. I want to let him know what happened to me detail by detail,” said Carney, 37. “It is part of the healing process.”
The announcement is the latest sign of what plaintiffs and their attorneys say is a far more positive tone in settlement talks since O’Malley arrived in Boston, a flashpoint in the church scandal.
“It has been like night and day,” lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. said. “He has done a tremendous amount of good already, and is helping to restore the trust.”
O’Malley settled a suit alleging sexual abuse while serving as bishop of the Fall River, Mass., diocese in the early 1990s — where he also met with plaintiffs face to face before a settlement was reached — and brought with him to Boston a reputation for straightforward dealing with abuse victims.
His first major decision in Boston was to replace the archdiocese’s law firm, which had been representing the church in settlement talks, with attorney Thomas Hannigan, who had handled the Fall River settlement for the church.
“It helps immeasurably that there is some familiarity there,” said MacLeish, who was involved in the Fall River settlement as a plaintiff’s attorney. “We have respect for both the archbishop and Mr. Hannigan. Significant reforms have been made already.” Hannigan did not respond to phone calls today, and O’Malley’s spokesman did not return phone calls.
Since O’Malley’s arrival, the church has been more willing to pay for victims’ counseling. Less than two weeks ago, he suspended four priests accused of molestation.
“The thing we look for is the connection between words and action, and so far the actions have been commensurate,” said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based group representing more than 30,000 lay Catholics who seek change in the church.
Post said the fact that O’Malley is personally involved means the talks are reaching a critical stage.
“In every negotiation, you reach the key point when both sides sense that an agreement is possible,” he said. “[O’Malley] is putting his personal prestige on the line here, and I am sure some people advised against it. They have turned it from a toxic environment to one where it may be possible for people to find common ground.”
Plaintiff’s attorneys declined to discuss how far apart the two sides still are. The church made a $55 million offer to settle the case in early August, before raising that number to $65 million.
In mid-August, previously sealed records were released showing the archdiocese paid at least $21.2 million to settle with 149 abuse victims from 1994 to 2001. This emboldened plaintiff’s attorneys to say the church’s initial offer was too low. The victims are reportedly seeking at least $90 million.
Still, several said that money was not the primary barrier to a settlement. John King, who will meet with O’Malley on Friday, said his main concern was getting some assurance that “this never happens to anyone again.” King, 40, of Methuen, said he called other victims to ask what they would like him to say to O’Malley. “The [dollar] number is just a symbol,” said King.
Garabedian said the church’s demand that any deal must be agreed upon by 95 percent of the plaintiffs is another factor holding back the settlement. in which 37 lawyers and more than 500 plaintiffs have a stake.
Plaintiff’s attorneys said that before any settlement is reached, they must be assured of the archdiocese’s intention and ability to pay. “If they can’t pay it, then we’ve done nothing,” said Carmen Durso, an attorney representing 42 plaintiffs.
Less than two years ago, Garabedian reached a settlement with the church of $20 million to $30 million for 86 clients. The church later said it could not pay, and the case was settled for $10 million.
“They breached their contract,” Garabedian said. “So we are always on the lookout for that.”