O.C. Talks on Abuse Settlement Collapse
Catholic Diocese's Insurers Won't Contribute Financially, Sources Say. Lawyers Talk of Taking Cases to Trial
By Jean Guccione and William Lobdell
LA Times [California]
July 23, 2004
The Orange County bishop's effort to negotiate a multimillion-dollar settlement with people who say they were molested as children by Roman Catholic priests broke down Thursday, possibly ending 19 months of mediation between the parties, according to lawyers for both sides.
After a day of closed-door talks, lawyers for the 60 plaintiffs asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman to let them begin preparing to take those cases to trial.
"We didn't get anywhere," said Raymond P. Boucher, the court-appointed liaison for attorneys representing more than 700 alleged victims of priestly abuse in Southern California. "It doesn't look like we're going to get anywhere short of litigation."
The mediation involved cases brought last year by people who alleged they were sexually abused by priests in Orange County since the Diocese of Orange was created in 1976. The collapse is not expected to affect settlement talks involving more than 500 claims against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The breakdown comes a month after lawyers for both sides were openly optimistic that a settlement was near.
In a letter read at churches across Orange County last month, Bishop Tod D. Brown told parishioners the cases were close to resolution. He also canceled plans to attend a gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops so he could be available for negotiations.
But the diocese's insurers refused to contribute to the financial settlement, say sources close to the negotiations.
And, unlike church officials in the Archdiocese of Boston, Brown was unwilling to finance the entire settlement through sales of church property or other means, then sue his insurers for some of the money paid to victims, the sources said.
Maria Schinderle, diocesan general counsel, said she was not giving up.
"We are continuing settlement talks and working with our insurance carriers to come up with a package for the victims," she said. "We want a just an equitable resolution."
She said she thought the diocese had "a pretty good offer on the table."
At one point, the diocese had offered at least $40 million to resolve the cases without a contribution from insurers. But there is no word on the current offer; the judge has threatened to jail any lawyer who breaks his confidentiality order on the mediation.
Counsel for the insurers was unavailable for comment late Thursday.
Boucher said the mediation "started off strong and we just hit a wall. We don't see any reason under the circumstances to continue to bang our heads against the wall.
"The diocese is saying we have to dance with the carriers," he said, "and they don't want to come to the dance no matter what kind of dance it is . I guess the diocese is waiting for Sadie Hawkins Day, when the carriers finally invite them."
The plaintiffs' lawyers had planned to use the Orange County cases as a model for mediation in three other Southern California dioceses.
Last month, Brown warned parishioners at 55 parishes across the county that the settlement could place a heavy financial burden on the diocese. Though he vowed not to make a deal that would create a financial crisis, the bishop said he hoped to avoid "costly, time-consuming trials where the outcomes are unpredictable."
"We are between a rock and a very hard place," Brown wrote in his letter to the county's 1 million Catholics. He said that he wanted to be just to victims of sexual abuse but that "I will not agree to any settlement that is not fair and just to all that is, one which does not allow us to continue to carry out our mission."
One lawyer for the plaintiffs, John Manly of Costa Mesa, said Thursday that "Bishop Brown has made a decision that his cathedral is more important than the children who were raped by his priests."
The plaintiffs' lawyers say that taking a few test cases to trial might encourage mediation, because it would show lawyers what, if anything, jurors were willing to award.
But they also say big verdicts in the early cases could deplete the money available to other victims whose cases might be tried later. In addition, the court would be hard-pressed to preside over hundreds of such trials.
For those reasons, most of the parties believe settlement is inevitable.
"I'm unsure as to the form the talks with take, but surely they will continue," said Stockton attorney Laurence Drivon, who represents 450 plaintiffs statewide.
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