St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Sex abuse costs church $85-million

Victims feel vindicated by the Boston settlement - the largest yet in the priest scandal.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 10, 2003

BOSTON - Boston's Catholic archdiocese on Tuesday agreed to pay $85-million to 552 people who say they were sexually abused by priests - the largest settlement yet in a scandal that began here but has shaken the church nationwide.

The settlement, announced in a courtroom amid tearful victims and their families, came after numerous attempts for more than a year to reach an agreement under former Cardinal Bernard Law. His replacement, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, was able to broker an agreement within five weeks.

Victims said the settlement will help the healing process after years of hearing their pleas for help from the church rejected.

"From this day forward, I am no longer an alleged victim," said Gary Bergeron, who along with his younger brother sued for molestation by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham in the 1970s. "I am recognized. I am a survivor."

While the settlement is the largest lump sum any U.S. diocese has agreed to pay at one time to victims of sexual abuse, it is not a record amount on a per victim basis. Each victim will be paid $80,000 to $300,000, depending on an arbitrator's assessment of the severity of the abuse. Lawsuits in other dioceses have brought payments of more than $1-million per plaintiff.

The actual amount paid to the plaintiffs would be slightly more than $84-million, as the agreement calls for $750,000 to reimburse lawyers for costs. Lawyers typically get a contingency fee of one-third, meaning that attorneys will split about $28-million, leaving about $56-million for the alleged victims, the Boston Globe reported.

All the awards will be paid by Christmas, the settlement states.

The church also will provide for psychological counseling for victims for as long as they want it and will put some victims on advisory boards monitoring the abuse problem.

O'Malley was in Washington at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the deal was struck but sat in on critical negotiations over the weekend.

"It's a good day for the archdiocese," said his spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne. "We haven't had too many over the last couple of years, but this is one."

The archdiocese also released a statement saying in part that it is "committed to doing everything humanly possible to make sure that this never occurs again. Our prayer is that this may, with the help of God, become a reality."

Coyne said the church is still looking for ways to finance the settlement. The Globe reported that the archdiocese plans to raise most of the money by mortgaging churches and other buildings in parishes slated to be closed in coming years.

It also may sue its insurance carriers, Kemper and Travelers, which have balked at paying. The companies argue that Boston church leaders broke their insurance contracts by failing to remove from service priests whom they suspected or knew were abusing children.

The deal came about a month after the archdiocese put a $55-million offer on the table. Plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for as much as $120-million. Attorneys for the two sides and O'Malley, considered a steady but forceful voice in the negotiations, met in a lengthy session Sunday that stretched into Monday morning.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer with the firm that represents nearly half of the alleged victims, said the $85-million offer was accepted after considering the archdiocese's financial condition and the additional stress a trial would put on victims.

"There comes a point where they (the archdiocese) just financially can't do anything anymore," MacLeish said. "We could continue in litigation with the archdiocese for years and years and years, but would there be positive results?"

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the national bishops' conference, said the deal "demonstrates that the church is committed to working out just settlements."

A resolution had been elusive since the scandal exploded in January 2002 with the release of court documents in the case of the Rev. John Geoghan, who church leaders moved from parish to parish despite evidence he had molested children.

Allegations against dozens of other priests soon came to light, and hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the archdiocese.

Priest personnel files, made public because of the suits, held shocking allegations: that a priest pulled boys out of religious classes and raped them in a confessional; that another fathered two children and left the children's mother alone as she overdosed; that another seduced girls studying to become nuns by telling them he was "the second coming of Christ."

Because of molestation claims, at least 325 of America's 46,000 priests were removed from duty or resigned in the year after the Geoghan case. And Law resigned as Boston archbishop in December, giving up his post as spiritual leader to 2.1-million Catholics because of his mishandling of abuse cases.

Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College, predicted it will take a generation before the church recovers from the scandal. But he said the settlement may help restore confidence among Catholics.

"The whole country has been waiting for Boston to resolve this question, waiting for Boston to set an example," he said.

Reilly, in a report issued in July after a 16-month investigation, estimated that more than 1,000 children were likely victimized by more than 235 priests from 1940 to 2000.

The appointment of O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar known for helping other dioceses recover from sex abuse scandals, brought new hope to the stalled settlement talks. He quickly shook up the church's legal team and made an offer.

"He has come together with us to work out a resolution of these cases, and he's done it with humanity, he's done it with compassion," MacLeish said.

- Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and Boston Globe was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.