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Settlement Versus Jury Trial: Which Is the Better Option for Victims?

by Marci Hamilton

Are settlements or jury trials the best option for child abuse victims?

One advantage of a jury trial is that it can place responsibility exactly where it belongs. For instance, the Dallas diocese lost a civil trial based on Rudy Kos's sexual abuse. The jury found that the diocese had committed fraud and engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the sexual abuse, and awarded the plaintiffs $119.6 million. When it rendered its verdict, the foreman read the following brief statement: "Please admit your guilt and allow these young men to get on with their lives." The courtroom, by all accounts, erupted in applause. (The plaintiffs later settled for $23.4 million, probably to avoid endless appeals, but the point had been made - and made very publicly.)

The recent settlement reached with the Boston archdiocese was not nearly as satisfying a vindication for victims. Originally, the agreement would have been for $30 million. But the Church - despite its ability to go after its insurer for the money - claimed it could not go on with its mission to aid other victims if it paid that much. The claim seems dubious, to say the least: Later investigation revealed approximately $160 million in land holdings alone.

In the end, the Boston settlement had victims apologizing to other victims for getting so little. They explained that they just could not go on with a seemingly endless process that prolonged the pain.

That is certainly a reasonable consideration. But victims should think twice before accepting a settlement in lieu of a trial. As difficult as a trial may be for victims, it offers an opportunity to have their community--via the jury--express its outrage on their behalf, which can have a strong healing effect. In the Dallas case, for instance, the victims - once isolated - through the trial found supporters to condemn the Church's wrongs in no uncertain terms.

Victims may, in the end, find greater satisfaction in airing the crimes and wrongs to a jury of persons from their community - not just to the attorneys negotiating their settlement. It is hard for a settlement to match the justice rendered by that Dallas jury in 1997 - and more victims should persevere to seek that kind of justice, which they deserve.

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Marci Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. Her columns on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal, and church/state constitutional issues, among other topics, can be found on the FindLaw Legal Commentary site. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org

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