Record deal in clergy abuse suits brings relief, challenges

LOS ANGELES – It appears too early to say whether the record-breaking $100 million clergy sex abuse settlement reached by the Roman Catholic Dicoese of Orange and 87 plaintiffs will be used as a blueprint for the settlement of hundreds of other cases around the country.

The agreement, reached late Thursday and expected to be finalized as soon as Monday, surpasses the previous record of $85 million awarded to 552 victims of clergy abuse in Boston in 2003.

It hasn’t been made public how much of the settlement insurers will cover and how much the archdiocese will have to provide. That makes it difficult to determine if similar agreements could be reached to resolve hundreds of other cases elsewhere in California.

About 500 lawsuits are pending against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with about 300 more spread out across the rest of the state.

“One signal it sends is this can be done. A second signal is if this can be done, at least some dioceses will come up with big bucks. Both of those things are important,” said Richard Marcus, a professor at the Hastings College of Law at the University of California, San Francisco.

But Ray Boucher, lead counsel for all Southern California plaintiffs, said the settlement doesn’t mean other California dioceses will follow suit. The Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, in particular, is a challenge because of the hundreds of plaintiffs involved, he said.

“It means very little for Los Angeles. It’s so large that unless Los Angeles gets full participation from its insurance carriers it’s a very long, hard hill to climb,” Boucher said.

J. Michael Hennigan, attorney for the Los Angeles archdiocese, agreed. He said some claims against the archdiocese date to the early 1930s and attorneys have been unable to locate insurance coverage for the archdiocese before the 1950s.

“If our problems were as straightforward as theirs, we’d be joining them in the settlement,” Hennigan said. “The claims against Orange are much more limited, they’re much more recent and we have a crazy quilt of insurance.”

The significance of the settlement for dioceses outside of California is unclear. The amount of payouts in clergy abuse cases depends on many local factors, including the wealth of individual dioceses, whether insurers will cover any of the costs, the extent of the molestation and whether local church officials took action to end the abuse.

Also, alleged victims in other states have not had the same opportunity as those in California to bring forward old claims. While some states extended the statute of limitations for bringing abuse claims, California was the only one that abolished the restriction entirely for one year, giving people a window of opportunity during that time to pursue their cases.

One thing the Diocese of Orange settlement appears to have done is brought closure to a number of victims. Some personally thanked Bishop Tod D. Brown for his courage and willingness to resolve their cases.

“It’s like a big weight lifted off my shoulders. Finally it’s stopped, it’s over,” said Max Fisher, a 40-year-old plaintiff from Anaheim. “Last night, Bishop Brown came up to me personally and apologized, and that meant more to me than anything.”

Some churchgoers also expressed satisfaction that the matter has been resolved.

“I really just feel compassion for everyone, even the priests who are accused,” said Maria del Carmen Aguirre Lopez, 67, who learned of the agreement while attending Mass Friday morning in Santa Ana.

Although the settlement was costly, the diocese will not face bankruptcy or be forced to close any parishes, said diocese chancellor Shirl Giacomi.

The diocese’s financial statements indicate it had a $171 million investment portfolio and $23.4 million in cash reserves as of June. Even before the settlement, the diocese had paid $4.6 million to clergy sex abuse victims and well over $66,000 for counseling to victims and their families.

The diocese has been preparing for the possibility of a large financial settlement for months. It cut staff and services, including its marriage preparation and family life counseling services, although volunteers at the parish level have taken over some of those duties, Giacomi said.

The diocese also suspended planning for three new parishes in burgeoning Ladera, Irvine and Santa Ana, where Masses are overflowing.

“It’s been a very painful time for the church,” Giacomi said. “What we’ve had to deal with were the sins of a few, but they were heinous.”

Associated Press Writers Bob Jablon in Los Angeles, Ben Fox in Orange County and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, USA
Dec. 4, 2004
Gillian Flaccus

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday December 4, 2004.
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