over church deal
Struggle with moral, legal questions about accepting
By Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe Staff
October 8, 2003
The boilerplate legal language would not rate a second glance
from a seasoned lawyer, but to Jacqueline Petinge, the words
practically assault her from the page, stopping her dead each
time she tries to decide whether to accept her share of the
Archdiocese of Boston's $85 million settlement with victims
of clergy sexual abuse.
The release form that Petinge and more than 500 other victims
must sign to claim their portion of the settlement says there
is "no admission of liability" from the archdiocese
in any "matter, cause, or thing whatsoever from the beginning
of the world to the date of this release."
"You keep reading these words over and over," said
Petinge, a 42-year-old Wilmington mother who says she was
raped by a priest in Melrose dozens of times when she was
13. "It has been exhausting to say the least. The questions
just keep coming up, keep haunting me."
Petinge has read the release over and over and met with her
lawyer four times as she wrestles with the moral and legal
questions left unresolved by the record-breaking settlement.
While lawyers for plaintiffs confidently predict they will
easily reach the 80 percent participation rate needed to make
the agreement official, a tiny minority of victims are agonizing
over taking money from the institution that turned a blind
eye to their abusers as they were shuttled from parish to
For some, accepting the settlement is akin to legally absolving
the church of its central role in the clergy abuse scandal.
Others cannot bring themselves to accept "blood money."
And some cannot bear to let go of the legal claims, which
they have long viewed as the only leverage that forced the
church to listen to their anguish and pleas for reform.
"They think about the church and say, `They get to go
free, and I get to live with it the rest of my life,' "
said Ann Hagan Webb, New England cocoordinator of Survivors
Network for those Abused by Priests. "The question at
some point becomes, `Is this what my life is worth?'
"It all comes into play when the piece of paper is in
front of you, the one that says that the church is making
no admission of guilt," Webb said. "It's different
when it's in front of you in black and white."
For Petinge, that has meant an intense process of soul-searching
as she pores over the possibilities and pitfalls of accepting
the agreement with her lawyer, Martin Dropkin of Somerville.
First they talked on the telephone, Petinge said, followed
by an e-mail exchange, then three face-to-face meetings, after
which she signed the form. She then called Dropkin back and
told him not to send the release to Thomas H. Hannigan Jr.,
the lawyer representing the archdiocese. Late last week she
had yet another meeting with her lawyer to discuss her decision.
She doesn't know when she will make her final decision, which
must be done by Oct. 23.
Petinge says she feels that the church has done nothing to
the priest she accused, the Rev. Robert D. Fay, who is on
medical leave from the priesthood and now owns a real estate
business in Brockton. Fay has told the Globe that he knew
Petinge, but has denied molesting her. That feeling is shared
by many of the people who have struggled, and continue to
struggle, with the decision. "The big fear is that everyone
will take their bows, and the Catholic Church will say, `Hey,
we fixed the problem now,' " said one abuse victim, who
asked not to be named.
Yet rejecting the settlement and pushing forward to trial
with individual claims is also problematic. Lawyers for the
plaintiffs have told their clients that it could take years
for their cases to go to trial, and, if they do, the clients
would probably be fighting against recent state Supreme Judicial
Court rulings that limit legal damages against charitable
institutions such as the archdiocese.
Some individual claims may also be barred by the statute
of limitations, which was not a consideration in the settlement
agreement, which covers abuse dating back decades.
The odds are so stacked against individual plaintiffs, lawyers
said, that ultimately they expect that fewer than 12 of the
552 people eligible for the settlement will reject it and
go to trial. That group is expected to include Gregory Ford,
who has accused the Rev. Paul R. Shanley of raping him at
the now-defunct St. Jean the Evangelist Parish in Newton,
as well as other accusers of Shanley, the former self-described
"street priest" who is expected to go on trial on
criminal rape charges in Middlesex Superior Court in the spring.
Roderick MacLeish Jr. the lawyer for the Ford family and
other Shanley accusers, said last week that none of them wanted
to comment publicly on their decision.
The bleak prospect of success in court has upset undecided
plaintiffs, such as 45-year-old William Oberle, who alleges
that he was abused for 2 1/2 years in the late 1960s and early
1970s by the Rev. Paul J. Mahan, when he was assigned to St.
Ann's in Dorchester. Mahan was defrocked in 1998.
Oberle said that he would like to press his claim publicly
in court, but that he's afraid that the church would be able
to successfully argue that it is covered by the state's charitable
immunity statute, which caps civil damage awards at $20,000
Under the settlement agreement, anyone who was abused is
entitled to an award of between $80,000 and $300,000, depending
on the duration and the severity of the abuse.
Oberle, who recently left Dorchester to "clear [his]
head" and live with relatives on the South Shore while
he makes his decision, said the money is only important because
he wants to put his daughter through nursing school. The money
"doesn't do anything to repair my life," he said.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.