Record settlement in clergy abuse suit
Saturday, December 4, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- A record-breaking, $100-million clergy sex abuse settlement between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and 87 plaintiffs brought some measure of relief to long-suffering families Friday.
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 in Boston in 2003, a participant in settlement negotiations said.
The Associated Press has learned the settlement involving the Orange County Diocese is worth $100 million.
It wasn't clear how much of the settlement insurers would pay and how much the diocese would provide, but church officials said the deal would not bankrupt the diocese or require the closure of any of its 55 parishes.
Superior Court Judge Owen Lee Kwong has prohibited lawyers in the case from discussing the amount of the settlement.
Legal experts not involved in the case said the deal could be a blueprint for mediation underway in about 500 lawsuits still pending against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Another 300 cases are pending throughout 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, law professor at the Hastings College of Law at the University of California, San Francisco.
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 its 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 in response to the abuse crisis, California was the only one that outright abolished the restriction, even though it was just for one year.
Plaintiffs in the Diocese of Orange cases were relieved to see the end of two years of grueling mediation. They 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."
Ray Boucher, lead counsel for all Southern California plaintiffs, said Friday that the settlement didn't mean other dioceses would follow suit. The Los Angeles 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, even though its leaders are eager to settle. 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."
Shirl Giacomi, chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, said the diocese will not face bankruptcy, but called the settlement expensive and painful nonetheless. Options might include taking out a loan or selling some church assets, such as a 17-acre diocesan and pastoral center.
The diocese's financial statements indicated it had a $171-million investment portfolio and $23.4 million in cash reserves as of June, the end of the 2003 fiscal year. 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 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 and Ben Fox in Orange County contributed to this report.