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Run of Abuse Claims Seen in California

Those who say they were molested by priests face a year-end deadline for filing legal actions. Settlement talks are continuing.

By Jean Guccione and William Lobdell - LA Times Staff Writers
December 8, 2003

With a year-end deadline approaching, those who say they were abused long ago by Roman Catholic priests are expected to file an avalanche of injury claims that could once again rivet attention on the church scandal after months of negotiations in secret.

"The pressure in California is building to a breaking point, but you haven't seen it bubble to the surface yet, because the litigation is in the early stages," said Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who was among the first in the nation to sue the Catholic Church for failing to protect children from the priests who molested them.

Over the last year, public attention in Southern California has focused on the short-lived criminal prosecution of more than a dozen present and former clerics, including one whom police plucked dramatically off a cruise ship in Alaska. But since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw those criminal cases out of court, victims have been turning to the civil courts.

Across the country, settlements have been accelerating. The Archdiocese of Chicago agreed in October to pay $12 million to 19 people who said they were abused by priests. The Kentucky Diocese of Covington pledged $5.2 million to 27 alleged victims.

The Louisville, Ky., Archdiocese said in June it would pay $25.7 million to nearly 250 alleged victims. And the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., reached a $6.5-million settlement with 61 alleged victims.

But experts widely expect any settlements in California to dwarf others, even those in Boston, where the scandal broke. The Boston Archdiocese agreed in October to pay $85 million to 552 victims.

Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Southern California cases, estimates that more than 500 claims will be filed statewide before the end of the year.

"Los Angeles is unique," Boucher said. "The enormous number of children who were sodomized and raped and victimized by priests is greater than in any other archdiocese anywhere else in the country."

The California plaintiffs enjoy significant legal advantages over the Boston claimants, according to Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, who, with Boucher, represents about 300 clients in Southern California. Unlike their California counterparts, those seeking redress in Boston were faced with expired statutes of limitations in most cases and a $20,000 limit on suits filed against charitable organizations.

Although the figure is hotly contested by insurance company and church lawyers, Boucher estimates that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the U.S., has more than $10 billion worth of insurance coverage available from several carriers to pay claims for the decades in which the abuse is alleged.

Statute Lifted

California lawmakers opened a window of opportunity by lifting the statute of limitations for one year, 2003, to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue employers who failed to protect children from known molesters.

The state had previously lagged many others in litigating sex abuse claims against the Catholic Church because California law bars alleged victims of childhood abuse from filing civil suits after their 26th birthdays, Anderson said.

In recent settlements, the Diocese of San Bernardino and Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, a religious order, agreed in July to pay $4.2 million to two brothers who accused their priest of sexually abusing them. The Oakland Diocese reached a $1-million settlement this month with a man who said he was molested more than 20 years ago.

As the first cases were being filed in January, plaintiffs' lawyers agreed to try to negotiate a settlement with the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange, even before all of the claims were entered.

"We remain optimistic that the process will conclude with a negotiated settlement," said Tod M. Tamberg, spokesman for the L.A. Archdiocese. "The complexity of mediation plus the time-consuming task of investigating hundreds of claims — the vast majority of which predate 1985 — make it impossible to predict when a final settlement will be reached."

With little more than three weeks left to file older molestation civil suits against the church, alleged victims must decide whether to go to court and reopen painful childhood wounds.

A Seal Beach woman is facing the dilemma now. She is concerned not only about the public shame and humiliation associated with her charges of sexual abuse by a priest almost three decades ago, but also about her parents' reaction.

"If they take the stand, I believe they would pick the church over me," said the 45-year-old, who asked that her name not be published. (The Times' policy is to not name victims of sexual abuse without their permission.) "They are Catholics through and through."

Real progress has been made in Orange County cases, where the parties, while still involved in the larger mediation talks, have decided to seek a compromise.

There are at least 50 claims of abuse against the Diocese of Orange, which has hired retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas F. Nuss to oversee the negotiations.

He is the same judge selected earlier this year to review privilege claims asserted by the Los Angeles Archdiocese in an effort to quash grand jury subpoenas in the now-derailed criminal investigation. Nuss, whose brother is a priest, sealed all the documents in the case, including a draft of his findings. The Los Angeles Times has appealed.

Plaintiffs' lawyers said the officials in the Orange Diocese were eager to settle their claims. Such a settlement could be instructive in setting up a process for the Los Angeles cases.

"It sort of lays the groundwork for what probably will happen in L.A.," attorney Boucher said. He and other parties to the Orange County mediation spoke to The Times in late October, before they began the secret talks.

In Orange County, there are three [insurance] carriers, a small diocese and a manageable number of claims, he said.

Commenting on the mediation, Shirl Giacomi, chancellor of the diocese, said: "There are rough spots on the road ahead, but we are on the road to reaching the bishop's often-stated goal of a prompt, fair and final resolution."

No one knows how long the mediation could take.

Anderson, the Minnesota lawyer, said cases generally get resolved when a high church official is at risk.

"The settlement of these cases is directly related to the proximity of the bishop … to the witness stand," he said.

Drivon predicted that if the Los Angeles cases were not resolved within the next 90 days, the litigation process would take two years in most instances.

He said the victims want more than just money. "In every one of these cases, there are always a series of nonmonetary issues that need to be addressed — documents, disposition of priests, and policies and procedures," Drivon said. "I anticipate each of those will be a significant part of the mediation."

Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg said she will insist, as terms of any settlement, on policy changes and apologies from church leaders.

If the cases are not settled, Los Angeles church officials said, they will challenge the constitutionality of the state law permitting the new lawsuits to be filed. Such a challenge is being waged by the Stockton Diocese in a case there.

Repeal Criticized

"In repealing the statute of limitations, the Legislature opened the church to some claims that are demonstrably false and many that are impossible to investigate because they are so old," L.A. Archdiocese spokesman Tamberg said. "If a negotiated settlement of all claims cannot be reached, the church will reserve all of its arguments for those claims that remain."

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Marvin Lager upheld the law last month in a case against the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He is the same judge assigned to the Los Angeles clergy abuse cases. Judge Peter Lichtman has been assigned to mediate in those cases.

An alleged victim — an attorney who works overseas — says he decided to sue the Orange Diocese in October to make sure other children remain safe and to salvage something from the wreckage of his adulthood. At 39, the former candidate for the priesthood says he is depressed, unable to establish romantic relationships with women and incapable of walking into a church.

"I think back on what my life would have been like, how it would be different," he said. "It's hard. People like me are the best friends of the church. We went to the schools, observed the faith. We did everything we're supposed to do."


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

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