Portland Trial Likely in Priest Abuse Cases:|
Few Cases Go to Trial, Experts Say, Because Both Sides Would Rather Not Air Details of the Allegations
By Ashbel S. Green firstname.lastname@example.org
The Oregonian [Portland]
July 5, 2004
Thousands of priest abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Catholic Church in the past 20 years, but just seven have gone all the way through trial to a jury verdict.
Barring a last-minute holiday weekend settlement, Portland will be the site of the eighth Catholic priest abuse trial beginning Tuesday.
Experts say there are powerful reasons why so few cases end up in front of juries. Plaintiffs face a public and detailed airing of their sexual abuse allegations. Church officials face the revelation of potentially embarrassing information, particularly in cases where they knew about allegations against the priest and responded by moving him to another parish.
"They are extremely painful for all involved," said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in priest abuse cases, including three that went to trial. They "are often very fragile. Some of them are not emotionally equipped for a trial."
"The church's dirty laundry gets exposed," he added.
The Roman Catholic Church also faces an abysmal trial record: It has lost all seven cases that went to jury since the first one in 1986. Although the church has had some success on appeal, juries have returned verdicts ranging from $1.1 million to nearly $120 million.
Two Oregon cases are scheduled to go to trial Tuesday -- one as a back-up if the first one settles.
Although the strengths of the plaintiffs' cases will not become clear until the trial, the Portland Archdiocese faces at least one significant disadvantage: both suits involve the conduct of the Rev. Maurice Grammond, who has been accused of molesting more than 50 boys from the early to mid-1980s.
And he has made the type of inflammatory remarks that can anger a jury.
"I'd say these children abused me," Grammond said in a deposition taken before he died in 2002. "They'd dive in my lap to get sexual excitement."
Experts caution that both cases could settle at the last minute -- or after the trial has begun. In November, for example, a priest abuse case in Oakland, Calif., settled several weeks after the beginning of trial.
Bill Barton, Kevin Strever and David Slader, the plaintiffs' lawyers, declined to comment Friday.
The Portland Archdiocese issued a brief statement: "The Archdiocese of Portland is committed to reasonable settlements with anyone injured by employees. At the same time, the archdiocese is a steward of the funds donated, and has a duty to those who donated the funds not to spend them unwisely."
Stakes are high
The church's statement underlines the financial stakes in the trial. The archdiocese and its insurers already have paid more than $53 million to settle more than 130 claims by people who say they were abused by priests. Dozens of other claims are pending.
Archbishop John G. Vlazny has said repeatedly there is a limit to how much the church can pay. He said he has not ruled out bankruptcy.
Plaintiffs' attorneys say Vlazny is bluffing.
A verdict in either of the two suits slated for trial could test that claim: they seek a total of more than $160 million.
The first case scheduled to go to trial involves an anonymous plaintiff. According to court documents, the plaintiff claims Grammond fondled him in Seaside in 1984 and 1985 when the plaintiff was 8 and 10. The court file revealed no other significant details about his claims.
The back-up case involves another anonymous plaintiff. According to court records, the plaintiff claims he was molested in Oakridge in 1963 or 1965. The court file includes a specific description of the plaintiff's sexual contact with Grammond. It also says the plaintiff did not remember the incident until a recent reunion in Oakridge.
In both cases, the issue likely to be key to the size of the verdict will be how much church officials knew about Grammond's history and what they did about it.
Church lawyers in recent motions sought to limit the evidence and testimony to that which directly deals with the two plaintiffs. They complained in a recent hearing that plaintiffs' attorneys wanted to put the entire priest abuse crisis on trial.
"They want to put under the microscope the last 54 years of how bishops handled complaints," said James M. Finn, an attorney representing the archdiocese. "We don't think they should be able to do that."
Multnomah County Circuit Judge Ronald E. Cinniger mostly sided with plaintiffs' attorneys, who said they needed to show the jury how much the Portland bishops knew about the sexual abuse of children by priests and how they had a policy of covering it up.
Settling before trial
Given similar stakes across the country, most cases up to now have settled before trial.
John Cotter, a lawyer who represented the Diocese of Stockton (Calif.) in a 1999 trial, said insurance companies usually make the call.
"They make a business decision," said Cotter, whose case resulted in a $30 million verdict. "That's probably why you haven't seen a lot of these go to trial."
In his case, the insurers offered a substantial settlement before trial, he said, but the two plaintiffs refused.
"There were millions of dollars on the table," Cotter said. "I think the plaintiffs just wanted their day in court."
If the risks to insurers remain high, attorneys say plaintiffs are changing their attitudes about going to trial.
Laurence Drivon, who represented the plaintiffs in the Stockton case, said people used to be more ashamed and more likely to settle rather than have the details of their case publicly revealed.
"That is changing. And the reason that it's changing is because so many people have gone public," Drivon said. "More and more of these clients are (demonstrating) not only a willingness, but an eagerness to go to trial for purposes of forcing the church to disclose information."
Church financial crisis doubted
If either Portland case results in a big verdict, the issue of bankruptcy almost certainly will come up.
After a Dallas, Texas, jury returned a $120 million verdict in 1997, church officials said they were considering bankruptcy. The plaintiffs later settled for $23.4 million.
Church officials in Boston and Santa Fe, N.M., in the past said they were considering bankruptcy in the face of the litigation crisis. Church officials in Tucson, Ariz., recently said they would decide in September whether to seek bankruptcy protection.
Plaintiffs' attorneys say bankruptcy threats are a transparent gambit.
"It's demonstrable baloney," Drivon said. "It all depends on what level of sacrifice the church hierarchy is willing to go to. And so far, they have not been willing to sacrifice at all."
Ashbel "Tony" Green: 503-221-8202;