Diocese, Accusers OK Deal

By Bill Zajac
The Republican
July 23, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - Concluding more than two years of legal wrangling, 46 alleged clergy sexual abuse victims and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield struck a more than $7 million deal yesterday to settle claims.

A memorandum of understanding, outlining the settlement, was signed by lawyers representing both sides late yesterday afternoon.

The deal includes $7 million in cash, proceeds from the future sale of two diocesan properties worth at least an estimated $585,000 and non-monetary provisions for the alleged victims.

The alleged victims will be provided lifetime counseling and continue to have access to other services provided through the diocese. An alleged victim will be named to the Diocesan Review Board.

Alleged victims will be required to sign waivers that prevent direct relatives from filing claims against the diocese except in cases that the relative was sexually abused themselves by a member of the clergy.

Victims reactions varied last night.

Andre P. Tessier, 45, of West Hartford, said a settlement is nothing to celebrate.

"This has been spiritual genocide for all of us," Tessier.

"The abuse and the church that covered up the abuse has stole my belief that the Catholic institution is a good one. I was brought up in the church and I wanted to be a part of it, but now I want nothing to do with it," Tessier said.

He said no amount of money could ever compensate him for everything he has lost in his life because of the abuse.

Tessier said he was repeatedly molested as a child by now defrocked priest Richard R. Lavigne of Chicopee.

Martin P. Bono, 49, of Springfield, said he pulled off the road and cried in joy for 25 minutes upon learning of the settlement.

He said he didn't believe it was a fair deal, but that he was happy it is being resolved.

He praised the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell, who succeeded the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre as bishop in the Springfield diocese after Dupre resigned in February amid allegations that he sexually abused two boys more than 20 years ago.

"I think of Tim - and that's what I call the bishop - as a friend. He said he was coming here to be a healer and I think he was," Bono said.

The 46 alleged victims, all of whom are represented by Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, have 14 days to opt out of the settlement and continue litigation. The total settlement will de decreased by 1/46th for every alleged victim who decides to pursue litigation.

Agreeing to the settlement enters each person into a binding arbitration that will determine individual settlement amounts, according to the diocesan statement and Stobierski.

The types of abuse, the duration of abuse and the effects of abuse on the victim's life will be used by four arbitrators to determine settlement amounts, according to Stobierski. Paul Finn of Boston, who mediated the settlement here and in Boston, will serve as lead arbitrator.

The average settlement amount is expected to be about $165,000 per person.

"When all is said and done, this will be a little bit better than the Boston settlement," said Stobierski.

The Archdiocese of Boston settled more than 500 claims for $85 million last year. Individual settlements ranged between $80,000 and $300,000.

Stobierski said his fee will be the standard one third, which is approximately $2.5 million.

Stobierski said he was uncertain whether any of his clients would opt out of the settlement.

"This is a great development for many of my clients, who feel war-torn by this exhausting process," Stobierski said.

Meanwhile, 20 or so other alleged clergy sexual abuse victims represented by other lawyers soon will begin mediating their claims against the diocese now that the largest group of alleged victims have reached an agreement.

In the mid-1990s, the diocese settled claims with 17 alleged sexual abuse victims of Lavigne for $1.4 million.

This settlement includes allegations against Lavigne and the Revs. Richard F. Meehan, Francis P. Lavelle, the late E. Karl Huller and the late and David P. Welch.

Stobierski criticized the diocese for announcing the settlement before he had time to notify his clients yesterday.

"It's just another example of public perception taking precedent over concern of the abused," Stobierski said.

Through a diocesan statement, McDonnell, who was directly involved in the monetary part of negotiations, expressed gratitude for the intense work of all parties involved in negotiating an agreement. McDonnell is on vacation.

When the diocese announced some of the details of the agreement late yesterday afternoon, it stated it would have no further comment on the matter until arbitrations are complete at the end of August. The statement did not say where the diocese would get the $7 million. Previously, officials said that the diocese was uninsured for some of the years that the alleged abuse took place.

The two properties in the settlement are a 4.8-acre vacant lot on Tinkham Road in Wilbraham and an 11-acre, land-locked vacant site abutting a cemetery in Springfield. The Tinkham road property has been appraised at between $400,000 and $600,000, according to Stobierski. The other property is assessed at $185,000, he said.

The diocese turned down a request by alleged victims to release the names of all priests who have had credible abuse accusations made against them.

"There are still victims out there silently suffering under the misconception that they were the only person abused by a priest," Stobierski said.


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