Clergy Sex Scammers?
By Daniel Lyons
Forbes [New York]
September 24, 2003
NEW YORK - Here's a wicked twist in the Boston clergy sex-abuse scandal: Now that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has offered $85 million to settle 552 complaints, two leading plaintiff lawyers are suggesting some of the claims might be bogus.
Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney who represents 238 people bringing claims against the archdiocese, says his complaints are legitimate--but others might not be.
"A number of claims, which in my opinion lacked merit, were presented to our firm and rejected," MacLeish says via e-mail. "An additional number were sent out for evaluations by psychologists and were rejected. I have no way of knowing whether people that we did not accept went to other attorneys and now are part of the list. Some of them may be deserving, but some that contacted us were not."
William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says he's flabbergasted. "For them to come out now and play this card shows how dishonest the process has been from the beginning," he says. "Why now, when the damage to the church has been done, do they come out and say some of these cases may be bogus? Ethically, they should have broached this months ago."
After two years of ugly wrangling and scandal, the Boston archdiocese earlier this month proposed the biggest clergy sex settlement ever. The deal would let 552 claimants and their 57 attorneys divvy up $85 million, with an arbitrator deciding how much each person gets, in a range of $80,000 to $300,000, depending on the nature of the abuse.
MacLeish wants the arbitrator to be further empowered to toss out cases that lack merit. "It is critical that the process have integrity and that someone was not awarded money simply because his or her name was on a list provided by an attorney," MacLeish says.
"I care passionately that the process has integrity," he says. "No payment for fraudulent claims. They should be prosecuted. I have strong feelings on this. This is simply about integrity and fairness. People who make this stuff up--and, again, there are not many, but there are some--should get nothing. The Church should not have to pay. It is immoral. The fact that you are on some lawyer's list should not mean that you automatically get 80K with no scrutiny."
Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who represents 120 Boston claimants, agrees with MacLeish. "Cases that really aren't abuse cases should be weeded out," Garabedian says. "Say a priest kisses a boy on the cheek. Is that a sexual abuse case, if that's all that happened? This is an attempt to weed out cases where the claimant hasn't suffered any damages."
Are some complaints really that ridiculous? Garabedian says he doesn't know--but maybe.
So much for the oft-made claim by sexual abuse victim advocates that there are no false claims, because "people don't make this stuff up."
What makes this more stunning is that, for the past two years, lawyers like MacLeish and Garabedian have complained when the Boston archdiocese wanted to test the legitimacy of claims before cutting a check--say, by asking plaintiffs to describe their abuse or asking shrinks to describe what damage a plaintiff had suffered.
MacLeish himself has presented one of the more dubious cases. His star client, Gregory Ford, is a mentally ill man who claims he was assaulted 80 times by a priest from 1983 to 1989 and blocked out all memory of the brutal attacks until January 2002 (see "Sex, God & Greed"). Ford's parents claim that even during the years when the assaults were occurring, their son was not aware of them. Soon after Ford "recovered" his memory of being attacked, two of his childhood friends also recovered memories of being attacked by the same priest and sued the archdiocese. MacLeish has turned their case into a soap opera, howling to local papers and TV stations when archdiocese lawyers tried to scrutinize their claims.
MacLeish and Garabedian say tossing out bad cases won't increase the amount of money payable to their clients. Instead, the pool of money will be reduced. So why do they care whether some scammers get lucky?
It may be because the archdiocese hopes to recoup from insurers, and insurers might be more inclined to pay up if they believe some attempt is being made to pay only the legitimate claims. MacLeish insists insurance has nothing to do with it.
These 552 cases will not close the scandal. That is because some among the 552 may choose not to participate in arbitration and instead go to trial. Also, in addition to those who opt out, MacLeish says he represents another group of plaintiffs who are not included in the 552. He will not say how many people are in this group or why they cannot be included in the current settlement process.
When will it end? God (and the lawyers) only knows.
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