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
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
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 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.
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
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
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.
"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."