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The low road
The Boston archdiocese had two models for approaching lawsuits brought by victims of clergy sexual abuse, and it chose the less generous one. Here’s where things stand.
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI

IT'S BEEN PEGGED as the first step toward healing the wounds in the American Catholic Church. Ever since the clergy sex-abuse scandal began dominating headlines two years ago — exposing a staggering number of child molestations by priests and an appalling pattern of cover-ups by Church leaders — the Archdiocese of Boston has faced mounting pressure to settle civil lawsuits brought against it by hundreds of alleged victims. Just last month, the archdiocese seemed to inch toward a resolution: on June 19, while attending a national conference of Catholic bishops, in St. Louis, Bishop Richard Lennon, the interim head of the archdiocese, pledged to extend an offer to resolve most of the pending cases before the end of June. Despite Lennon’s optimistic assurances, however, the offer has yet to materialize.

The much-anticipated gesture would have ended months of paralysis — what one observer rather bleakly describes as "a death grip" — in the settlement negotiations among the archdiocese’s and the victims’ attorneys. In late May, Lennon (whose spokesperson, the Reverend Christopher Coyne, did not respond to the Phoenix’s requests for an interview) issued a three-paragraph statement asking victims’ attorneys to stand down on trial preparations in order to pursue a settlement for most of the 500 alleged victims. Throughout the month-long moratorium on legal action, which expired last Friday, the mood among those involved in the lawsuits became increasingly rancorous, hostile, and bitter. That’s partially because Lennon had intimated that an offer was imminent, and stressed, according to a May 22 statement, "I personally remain committed to reaching a fair and equitable resolution."

But by June 27, the archdiocese’s self-imposed deadline for the moratorium, Lennon had failed to live up to his words. In a statement released that day, he apologized to victims of clergy sexual abuse for the lack of resolution. He reiterated his "personal pledge" to work toward a settlement. Then, he concluded, "I appreciate for victim survivors that the fact that we are not at the conclusion of this process is the source of ongoing suffering and distress. This distress is shared by family members of survivors, as well as by the community at large, and by myself."

Lennon’s apology has met with deep cynicism from victims and their advocates. The failure to offer a settlement has puzzled many, who wonder how Lennon could have committed such a gaffe. Jeffrey Newman, of the Boston law firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents close to 250 victims, explains that Lennon’s June 19 pledge in St. Louis created enormous expectations from people suffering already from emotional highs and lows. He and his fellow attorneys never anticipated that Church officials would be so irresponsible as to promise what they couldn’t deliver. As he says, "You don’t go forward and make statements about something if you cannot come through. I expected Lennon would have been more careful than that."

There’s speculation, of course, that Lennon and Church officials had purposely withheld a settlement offer because they knew the Vatican would appoint a new archbishop to lead the troubled archdiocese — and they were leaving the last bits of the sex-abuse mess for him to clean up. Indeed, on Tuesday, Pope John Paul II named Bishop Sean Patrick O’Malley to the top post. Once the head of the Diocese of Fall River — which endured its own sex-abuse scandal involving notorious ex-priest and convicted child molester James Porter in 1992 — O’Malley has since gained a reputation for addressing these matters proactively and bringing about closure. He’s just served a 10-month stint at the helm of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, where two bishops were forced to resign amid allegations of child sexual abuse.

Even if Church officials were treading water until the new archbishop’s arrival, the unfulfilled promises of a settlement offer have only heightened the antagonism and distrust among victims and their attorneys. The June moratorium marked the fourth time Church leaders had requested a voluntary cooling-off period. Each time, not only have they failed to put forth a single offer, they haven’t even bothered to call the other side. Says Carmen Durso, who represents 40 people allegedly abused by 20 Boston priests, "The Church says, ‘Stand down and we’ll talk,’ but it doesn’t talk." This inaction prompted Durso, along with Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 113 alleged victims, to refuse to participate in the last moratorium. Their colleagues at Greenberg Traurig begrudgingly took part, but not before warning Church leaders what would happen if they missed the June 27 deadline. "We told the archdiocese there’ll be no further stand-downs," Newman says. "Now, we’re actively litigating."

Still, the fact that Church leaders once again forfeited the opportunity to settle these cases and thus extend victims a helping hand isn’t surprising. After all, at every step of the way, the Boston archdiocese has responded to the sex-abuse scandal only after being poked, prodded, and pressured into doing what’s right — by either the courts or the media. Why should making the ultimate gesture of reconciliation be any different?

As Bill Gately, of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), points out, "Everything that the archdiocese has done has been coerced or beaten out of it. There’s no sense that Church leaders have any remorse over the damage and pain [caused by the scandal] at all."

SINCE THE SEX-ABUSE scandal came to light in March 2001, the Boston archdiocese has had two regional role models for handling lawsuits alleging child molestation by priests. To the north, it’s watched a similar legal saga play out in the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, which resolved all but 10 such cases on May 22. To date, the diocese has settled as many as 176 abuse claims for a total of $15.5 million — each within a year of being filed. Under the agreements, victims will receive anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000, depending on objective criteria such as the nature and incidence of the abuse, and the victim’s age when it occurred. In addition, Church leaders will cover the cost of victims’ therapy for as long as requested. Settlements include an apology penned by Bishop John McCormick, in which he offers to meet each victim personally.

Those familiar with the negotiations attribute the swift and relatively smooth resolution of the matter to the diocese itself. According to Manchester attorney Peter Hutchins, who’s settled 79 clergy-sex-abuse cases against the diocese for $6.8 million, Church leaders met the litigation with an honest, conciliatory attitude. They allowed victims’ attorneys to see a full accounting of the diocese’s financial records, assets, and insurance policies. Never once did they challenge victims’ claims. Adds Hutchins, "The message we got is, ‘We’re going to make every effort to settle.’ The whole tone was different. I did not have 80 pissed-off clients waiting for some offer."

Diocesan officials actually did more than pay lip service to the Catholic Church’s oft-repeated pledge to treat victims in a "pastoral" manner. Ovide Lamontagne, a Manchester attorney who represented the diocese, explains that McCormick directed Church attorneys to act "as the Church, not as combatants." And so, he and his colleagues refrained from using the hard-nosed tactics that have become standard fare in modern litigation — indeed, they didn’t raise even one legal defense. "We were asked to approach this as if we were the Church trying to understand the victims," he says. "That was an unusual directive."

Meanwhile, to the south, the Boston archdiocese has witnessed yet another New England diocese settle its lawsuits in the wake of the nationwide sex-abuse scandal. Last September, the Diocese of Providence reached a $14.5 million settlement in 37 suits alleging sexual misconduct by 11 priests — but only after engaging in what’s believed to be the longest stretch of such litigation in the nation. Since the first lawsuit was filed back in 1992, the Providence diocese has played legal hardball in a protracted battle best described as "a fight to the death," as one victims’ attorney puts it. (Not that this is unusual behavior for the Catholic Church when fighting clergy-sex-abuse lawsuits. See "Cutthroat Tactics," News and Features, August 24, 2001.) It wasn’t until last year, when the diocese faced mounting pressure to reveal its internal files, that it got serious about a settlement. Just two months before its offer, in July 2002, a Rhode Island Superior Court judge ordered the diocese to open its records about abusive priests. When the diocese appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, it was urged to go into mediation instead.

To its credit, once the diocese decided to mediate, says Carl DeLuca, a Warwick, Rhode Island, attorney who represents 33 of the 37 victims, "Church leaders treated my clients great." The settlement includes an average payment of $400,000 per victim. On top of that, the victims’ therapy bills will be paid for life. More important, as part of the agreement, diocesan leaders had to listen to victims relay how the trauma and shame of clergy sexual abuse have affected their lives. Notes DeLuca, "I cannot tell you what that did to victims to finally be treated the way they had expected by their church."

Still, the decade’s worth of iron-fisted tactics has had an effect. Frank Fitzpatrick, of the Cranston, Rhode Island–based Survivors Connection, describes the mood among victims and their families as "mixed." On the one hand, people are glad the long struggle has finally subsided. On the other hand, they know the diocese has gotten away with not revealing what it knew about its rogue clergymen. One of the people who brought an abuse claim against the Providence diocese — a Burrillville, Rhode Island, woman named Mary Ryan — has refused to settle her 1995 lawsuit just so she may force the diocese to open its files. (Efforts by the Phoenix to reach Ryan were unsuccessful.) As Fitzpatrick concludes, "The Providence diocese behaved in a vile way by putting victims through 10 years of misery. It shouldn’t be celebrated" for settling these cases.

 

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Issue Date: July 4 - July 10, 2003
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