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Deal with abuse victims wasn't final, cardinal says

©Los Angeles Times
August 3, 2002

BOSTON -- In his first public court appearance since the sexual abuse scandal erupted here in January, Cardinal Bernard Law insisted Friday that an announced multimillion-dollar settlement with dozens of alleged victims was never final.

As the cardinal defended the decision to back out of a $15-million to $30-million accord with 86 adults who say they were molested by former priest John J. Geoghan, church officials in Boston said they might file for bankruptcy if the massive settlements are upheld.

"It is true that in the process of considering all possible options in pursuit of a global settlement legal counsel has been authorized to review how bankruptcy law might apply to the archdiocese," Archdiocese Chancellor David W. Smith said in a statement released Friday.

Although the cardinal has been deposed repeatedly in civil lawsuits since the scandal began, those hearings were closed. On Friday the nation's senior Catholic prelate took the stand -- under oath like any other witness -- and in open court was forced to read aloud a newspaper article in which he praised the agreement as "an important step in reaching closure."

The cardinal, in a black suit and Roman collar, was on the stand for more than two hours on the second day of a hearing to determine if the agreement is binding on the archdiocese.

Under questioning from the attorney representing Geoghan's alleged victims, Law said the settlement was tentative because not all of them had signed off on it. He said the church withdrew from the agreement after financial advisers said the price was too steep -- and because so many other alleged victims who had stepped forward would expect comparable compensation.

"I saw it as a proposed settlement that would become effective with the necessary signatures," Law testified.

When attorney Mitchell Garabedian demanded to know why Law did not use the word "proposed" in a March 15 editorial in the diocesan paper, the Pilot, the cardinal replied: "I did not use that word as a qualifier, I wish obviously now that I had used it. It would have expressed the intent of my words more effectively."

Law and the archdiocese now contend that they are seeking a "global" settlement that would cover all clerical abuse victims. No figure has been cited, but church officials have stressed their goal of "fair and equitable" agreements that do not favor one group of victims at the expense of others.

Donations to the archdiocese have dropped substantially since the scandal began. After a report Friday in the Boston Globe that the archdiocese was considering filing for bankruptcy if it was required to pay huge settlements, Smith said: "What is in place is a study at the level of legal counsel. No recommendation has been received, nor, obviously, has any decision been taken."

The public discussion of church finances was the latest in a series of embarrassments for the nation's fourth-largest archdiocese. Law's own appearance before Judge Constance Sweeney, meanwhile, refueled the heated controversy about the cardinal's role in the clerical abuse scandal.

Documents made public by the Boston Globe showed that the archdiocese knew of the long history of pedophilia accusations against Geoghan and that high church officials moved Geoghan from parish to parish rather than prohibit him from having duties involving contact with children.

Geoghan was convicted of one count of child abuse in January, and is serving a nine-to-10-year prison sentence.

Scores of suits involving Geoghan are pending.

Law is scheduled to give depositions next week in several additional abuse cases. Settlement talks between the archdiocese and lawyers for victims in those 240 other pending cases recently concluded unsuccessfully.

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