Settles Sexual Abuse Case for $100 Million
By Nick Madigan
New York Times
January 5, 2005
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 4 - Twenty-six years after he was sexually abused by a priest, there is still a catch, almost imperceptible, in Max Fisher's voice when he talks about it.
The man who assaulted him is dead, but Mr. Fisher said Tuesday that he only felt a measure of vindication now that he and 89 other plaintiffs who contended they were abused by Roman Catholic priests and other church employees in Orange County had received a public apology from a bishop.
Mr. Fisher said that for him, the apology, from Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange at a court hearing on Monday, trumped the announcement of a record $100 million settlement between the diocese and the 90 plaintiffs who came forward to say they were abused in the county's parishes, in some cases decades ago.
"I'm more pleased with the fact that I got what I was after, which wasn't money, but an apology from the church," Mr. Fisher, 40, said by telephone. "The bishop pulled me aside and said, 'I'm deeply sorry that this happened.' That meant more to me than anything."
The $100 million sum announced on Monday is the highest paid by a diocese in the United States to settle sexual abuse cases. It surpasses the Archdiocese of Boston's agreement in 2002 to pay $85 million to 552 plaintiffs, and may have the effect of increasing the amount of money in play as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles struggles to settle 544 claims against it for similar abuses.
Under the terms of the 48-page Orange County settlement, the diocese was given until Jan. 31 to turn over to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge all its documents about the sexual abuse cases. After the judge reviews them for confidentiality and privilege issues, the documents are to be released and could disclose efforts by the diocese over the years to cover up the assaults and transfer accused priests to other parishes, where often they continued their abusive behavior.
Joelle Casteix, 34, another Orange County plaintiff, said the prospect of the documents' release was the biggest triumph.
"For many years, people have struggled to find out what the diocese knew and when it knew it," said Ms. Casteix, who contended she was abused for two years by her choir master when she was a teenager. "Any settlement that did not include these documents would be nothing more than dirty money."
The Orange County cases, which spanned the years 1936 to 1996, included claims against 31 priests, 10 lay personnel, two nuns and one religious brother.
Payments to plaintiffs will range from about $500,000 to $ 4 million, depending on the severity of the claimed abuse, said Raymond P. Boucher, a lawyer whose firm represented 14 of the plaintiffs. Lawyers' fees are expected to consume as much as 40 percent of the settlement.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, warned against drawing too much meaning from the agreement.
"People latch onto settlements as a sign that things are improving," Mr. Clohessy said. "That's naïve. A financial settlement is the absolute bare minimum that bishops should provide. It is not necessarily an indication of contrition or reform."
Mr. Clohessy said he was "hopeful but skeptical" that the Orange diocese documents, when released, would be left unpurged of the most difficult revelations of priestly conduct.
In his apology, Bishop Brown, who assumed control at the diocese in 1998 - two years after the last reported abuses - said he hoped that his changes in policies and personnel would "guarantee that, as much as is humanly possible, these things will never happen again."
Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer representing 33 plaintiffs in the case, said that while the settlement gave victims "a new lease on life," it would not "make the memories and the pain go away."
Mr. Fisher, the plaintiff who appreciated Bishop Brown's expression of sorrow, said he would never have received an apology from the priest he said abused him in Anaheim when he was 14.
"He was sick and twisted," Mr. Fisher said of the priest, Siegfried Widera, who committed suicide in Mexico in 2003. Father Widera had been facing 42 felony counts of sexual molestation in California and Wisconsin.
In Boston on Tuesday, a lawyer for Paul Shanley, the defrocked street priest at the center of the abuse scandal there, said that prosecutors planned to drop a number of criminal charges against him. The lawyer, Frank Mondano, said prosecutors intended to drop charges involving a third man before the trial starts on Jan. 18.
Mr. Mondano said he had cross-examined the man, who has not been publicly identified, in court last year, and prosecutors have been unable to find him since.
"He left court abruptly," Mr. Mondano said. "My understanding is that they haven't been able to find him."
Mr. Shanley, 73, was indicted in June 2002 for the rape of four boys at St. John the Evangelist in Newton, a Boston suburb, from 1979 to 1989, but prosecutors dropped charges involving two of the individuals last summer.
And the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., said it would start an advertising campaign this week to encourage people who were sexually abused by priests to come forward. In a pending lawsuit, plaintiffs in Oregon who say they were abused by priests are seeking $155 million in damages.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.