As the Boston Archdiocese Moves, Others May Follow
By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times
Downloaded September 10, 2003
Faced with lawsuits from hundreds of people who say they were sexually abused by priests, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston fought back last year with legal tactics befitting any corporation under siege, at one point even trying to obtain the confidential notes of an accuser's therapist.
So the settlement reached yesterday between the Boston Archdiocese and 552 plaintiffs represents a remarkable turnaround. The archdiocese agreed not only to pay a record $85 million to compensate the victims and their families, but to meet demands that many plaintiffs had long pressed.
Among those, the archdiocese agreed that in addition to the $85 million, it would pay for as much mental health treatment as the plaintiffs say they need, with therapists chosen not by the church, as in the past, but by the plaintiffs.
For concessions like this, the settlement in Boston, where the scandal erupted 21 months ago, is a benchmark for leaders of other dioceses and religious orders.
"This is an important agreement," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. "It demonstrates that the church is committed to working out just settlements which seek to meet, to the extent possible, the needs of people who have suffered terribly."
The agreement was reached only six weeks after Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley took over the leadership of the Boston Archdiocese. Some Catholic leaders said yesterday that the settlement could put pressure on other bishops and leaders of religious orders who have been paralyzed in legal standoffs in sexual abuse lawsuits in dioceses across the country.
"I believe it will give the others enough courage to go forward to put this ugliness behind them," said Ray H. Siegfried II, chairman of the Nordam Group, an aviation company, who is a member of the national lay review board appointed last year by the nation's bishops to investigate the causes of the crisis and monitor the church's response.
Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a Washington-based group representing Catholic philanthropies, said of the settlement, "It has great potential for getting things unstuck."
Victims' advocates have already signaled an intent to use the settlement to pressure other bishops. On Wednesday, the Milwaukee chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests plans to hold a news conference in front of the chancery to compel Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan into entering into mediation with people who say they were victimized there.
All five dioceses in Wisconsin have been immune to lawsuits because of a state Supreme Court decision that barred civil suits against churches.
"The archbishop in Boston in less than a month has done more than the archbishop here has done in a year," Peter Isely, the Milwaukee coordinator of the Survivors Network, said. "It's very disheartening for victims here to see things reaching resolution in other parts of the country, but because of our Supreme Court decision, the church here has not had an incentive whatsoever to budge and reach closure with victims and their families."
Participants from all sides of the scandal warned that the church still had a long path to travel to recover. Catholic dioceses, schools and religious orders are still being sued by people who claim they were abused because the church was negligent in supervising pedophile priests.
Also, starting in December, the bishops' conference says, it will release the results of studies on the extent of child sexual abuse in the church, the causes, and the dioceses' compliance with new abuse policies.
The bishops commissioned the studies, to be administered by a national lay review board and a child protection office led by a former F.B.I. official. Each diocese has been required to fill out a survey for a study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice tabulating how many priests molested how many children. Several church officials have suggested these reports are likely to contain disturbing information about the extent of abuse.
"Everyone needs to understand that this is not the beginning of the end," said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It may be the end of the beginning, but it was a necessary ground clearing to start to restore a vibrant Catholic life to the Archdiocese of Boston."
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