Deal Reflects Archbishop and His Franciscan Roots

By Fox Butterfield
New York Times
Downloaded September 11, 2003

BOSTON, Sept. 10 On Sunday evening, at a secret, hastily called negotiating session between lawyers for 550 people who say they had been sexually abused by priests and representatives of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese, one of the lawyers handed over photographs that a paralegal had taken of six large buildings that the church rented out for commercial or residential use.

The message was intended to be clear, said the lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr. The archdiocese had property it could sell to help settle the victims' lawsuits.

But the message may have been especially powerful to the new archbishop of Boston, Sean P. O'Malley, who surprised the lawyers by showing up for the meeting. Archbishop O'Malley is a Capuchin Franciscan, and like other Franciscans, wears a coarse brown robe and shuns the trappings of wealth and power. One of his first actions after being installed as archbishop in late July was to give up the mansion inhabited by his predecessors in favor of a humble rectory in a less than fashionable section of the city.

In the view of Mr. MacLeish, who has known Archbishop O'Malley for a decade, and of others in the church here, his Franciscan heritage may have made it easier for him to agree quickly to a generous settlement with the victims, offering to pay them $85 million by Christmas, in part by selling off church property. It is the largest settlement of sexual abuse claims by any diocese in the nation, and it came after 18 months of fruitless negotiations between the lawyers and Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the former archbishop, who resigned last December.

"I do think his Franciscan background is important to what happened," said Mr. MacLeish, whose firm, Greenberg Traurig, represents 260 people who are said to be victims.

The Rev. John O'Malley, a professor of church history at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., said: "As a Franciscan, he would be more inclined to do this. It would give him a clarity of vision that people are more important than money." Professor O'Malley is not related to the archbishop. "Wearing that brown robe, giving up the fancy residence and being willing to spend the church's money to help people all fit as core values for Franciscans," Professor O'Malley said.

Lawyers and church officials say it is still unclear what church properties will be sold off to help pay for the settlement, along with money from insurance policies and loans. But the archdiocese does own a large number of buildings and valuable amounts of undeveloped land around Boston, including some homes for retired priests and nuns that have recently been put up for sale.

Although the archbishop has not spoken publicly about the settlement or what led up to it, by all accounts it was the Sunday evening meeting in which he appeared unexpectedly that was the pivotal event in the negotiations. Lawyers, victims and church officials said it was Archbishop O'Malley himself who made the difference.

The meeting was proposed by Paul Finn, a mediator, who suggested that a steering committee of eight lawyers for the victims come to his office in the old industrial city of Brockton, south of Boston, where they could meet out of sight of the press with the church's main lawyer, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr.

A meeting originally scheduled for Saturday had been called off at the last minute because some of the victims' lawyers accused other lawyers of leaking word of its whereabouts to reporters and to other victims, causing a circus-like atmosphere.

Carmen Durso, a lawyer who represents 42 people who say they were abused by priests, said he had arrived for the Sunday meeting in shorts and a polo shirt embroidered with a picture of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character. Jeffrey A. Newman, another lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, showed up in an old stained shirt and sneakers. Mr. MacLeish wore shorts.

To their surprise, the church's lawyers were in suits and ties, and in a few minutes Archbishop O'Malley himself walked in, then shook hands with each of the lawyers.

"It was a real contrast from dealing with Cardinal Law," Mr. Newman said. Cardinal Law's legal team had played hardball with the plaintiffs, issuing subpoenas for their psychiatric records and backing out of one earlier settlement on the ground that it did not have the money.

Another of Archbishop O'Malley's first actions had been to replace Cardinal Law's legal team with a new lawyer, Mr. Hannigan. Mr. Hannigan had helped Archbishop O'Malley negotiate settlements with victims of a pedophile priest 10 years ago when he was bishop of Fall River, and Mr. Hannigan was consequently well-liked by the victims' lawyers.

After the introductions were over, Archbishop O'Malley and the lawyers made presentations, explaining their positions. The archbishop said he understood the victims' suffering and could offer $65 million.

The lawyers asked for $90 million to $100 million, participants said.

The two sides then went to separate rooms, with Mr. Finn, the mediator, shuttling back and forth.

Toward midnight, Mr. Finn returned to the lawyers and said the archbishop had raised his offer, to $85 million, but that was as high as he could go without harming the church.

"If that had been Cardinal Law saying that, I would not have accepted it," Mr. Newman said. "I have deposed Cardinal Law. I would not believe him even telling me what his name was. But O'Malley I believed to be honest."

The stage had been set, the lawyers said, by a number of gestures Archbishop O'Malley had already made, including meeting privately with several victims since taking over. Gary Bergeron, who says he was sexually abused by a priest, said he had been invited and met with Archbishop O'Malley three times in the past month. "O'Malley is following the laws of the Bible, it's that simple," Mr. Bergeron said. "There is no arrogance, no infallibility."

It was this sincerity that enabled the lawyers to accept Archbishop O'Malley's final offer.

"Looking into his eyes," said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer, "it was clear he felt a lot of the pain of the victims. It was very powerful."

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