Diocese Reaches Tentative Agreement with 46 Alleged Abuse Victims
By Bill Pomerleau
July 28, 2004
SPRINGFIELD -- The Diocese of Springfield has reached a tentative agreement with 46 individuals who say that they were sexually abused by five diocesan priests.
According to a memorandum of understanding signed the afternoon of July 22, the diocese has offered a global amount of $7 million, plus the proceeds from the eventual sale of two diocesan properties, to a pool that that would settle claims by the clients of Attorney John Stobierski.
The agreement also guarantees lifetime, outside counseling to those bringing accusations, and access to other outreach services provided through the diocese.
The agreement covers allegations of abuse by former priest Richard Lavigne, Fathers Richard F. Meehan and Francis P. Lavelle, the late Msgr. David P. Welch, and the late Father E. Karl Huller.
Fathers Meehan and Lavelle have been removed from active ministry, and cannot present themselves as priests in public.
Accusations against Msgr. Welch, the former editor of The Catholic Observer, and Father Huller were brought to the diocese after their deaths.
Word that a tentative settlement was pending circulated earlier in the week when plaintiffs and their family members spoke to a reporter from a Springfield newspaper about the proposed deal.
“I knew from The Republican that Stobierski’s clients had been briefed on the settlement as early as Tuesday,” said diocesan spokesman Mark E. Dupont.
In a July 23 Republican article, Stobierski criticized the diocese for “announcing the settlement before he had time to notify his clients yesterday.”
“It just another example of public perception taking precedent over concern for the abused,” Stobierski told the Springfield daily.
Attorneys are ethically prohibited from signing agreements before they consult with their clients, noted Dupont, who notified all local the media about the settlement after it was finalized.
“I asked Mr. Stobierski’s permission to issue a statement after the agreement was signed, and he agreed to that,” diocesan attorney John Egan told The Catholic Observer July 23.
Upon hearing of this week’s development, Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell said he was deeply grateful for the good will and intense effort of all parties involved in the process.
“The hopes and prayers of the entire Catholic community remain for a satisfactory conclusion to these matters, so that the important healing process may continue, both for these individuals and for the church community as a whole,” the bishop said in a prepared statement issued during his summer vacation.
Those covered by this week’s agreement, which is modeled after a settlement reached last year in the Archdiocese of Boston, have 14 days to opt in or out of a binding arbitration process.
For every accuser opting out of the process, the size of the settlement pool would be reduced by 1/46.
The cases of those who participate in the arbitration will then be examined by four arbitrators from Commonwealth Mediation Services, a firm headed by attorney Paul Finn.
Finn and his three colleagues, who have already heard stories of alleged abuse by several of the claimants, will determine how much money each alleged victims will receive.
The arbitrators will consider the type of abuse, the duration of abuse, and the effect the abuse had on the victim’s life.
The agreement also prohibits relatives of those in the settlement pool from filing future claims for emotional distress against the diocese, unless they themselves are direct abuse victims.
Each participant will receive a minimum of $80,000.
The average settlement will likely be around $165,000. That amount is roughly comparable to the individual settlements in Boston, which ranged between $80,000 and $300,000.
However, the Boston settlement contained limits on the amount counseling victims could receive.
Early in the nearly two-year long settlement talks, the Springfield diocese had offered lifetime therapy to alleged victims.
Under the recently signed agreement, those needing therapy will be reimbursed by the diocese for all “out of pocket” therapy expenses. That includes co-payments for those with health insurance, and full reimbursement for the uninsured.
The diocese had initially maintained that each claim of abuse would have to be settled individually, while Stobierski insisted on a global settlement of $14.5 million.
Earlier this year, former Springfield Bishop Thomas L. Dupre and Stobierski agreed to the concept of a mediated settlement, using Finn as a mediator. Individual settlement talks then slowed when Bishop Dupre retired amid charges that he himself had sexually abused two minors when he was a priest in the 1970s.
Bishop McDonnell made settlement of all sexual abuse claims a top priority after his April 1 installation as leader of the diocese. He initially offered $5 million for a global settlement, and then gradually raised the diocese’s offer to $7 million.
Egan told the Observer that the bishop made the diocese’s final offer in mid-June, when he agreed to include proceeds from the property sales in the settlement.
In May, Father James Scahill, an outspoken advocate for clergy abuse victims, advocated the sale of church-owned property to fund an abuse settlement.
In a letter sent to Bishop McDonnell and The Republican, Father Scahill cited several properties that, under canon law, belong to individual parishes.
He also proposed for sale a 4.8 acre lot on Tinkham Road in Wilbraham acquired by the late Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon in the 1960s for the possible establishment of a second parish in that town.
Stobierski, who was also proposing church land sales in recent months, hired an appraiser who told him the suburban property can be sold for $400,000 to $600,000. Stobierski also identified a land-locked, 11-acre property abutting Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Springfield which he believes is worth $185,000.
Under the memorandum of understanding, the church will transfer both properties to a trust headed by Stobierski and his law partner by August 31.
The trust will in turn market and sell the properties, and divide the proceeds among participating claimants in the same proportion as the principal settlement pool from the diocese, Egan said.
The diocese had little comment this week on how it will fund the other $7 million in the settlement pool.
Bishop McDonnell has previously said that proceeds from the sale of the Christian Education Center on Carew Street in Springfield will help fund settlements.
Part of the balance might come from liability insurance. However, the diocese’s insurance carriers have not yet agreed on what, if any, part of the settlement they will cover, according to a diocesan source.
Proceeds from the Annual Catholic Appeal, which are designated for specific charitable purposes, cannot by law be used for other purposes. Similar restrictions are in place for other funds held by the diocese, such as designated endowments for Catholic schools and cemetery trust funds.
The diocese has a general investment portfolio which provides annual income for its general expenses.
In fiscal year 2001-2002, the earnings on that portfolio totaled $599,294, according to an audited statement of activities for the diocese published in the Observer last December.
In fiscal year 2002-2003, investment earnings dropped to $420,020, according to the report.
If the diocese were to immediately liquidate $7 million of its investments, it would permanently forfeit $350,000 in annual income for its operating budget, assuming 5 percent annual yield on its investments.
This week’s tentative agreement does not include accusations brought against the diocese by other attorneys.
There are up to 20 other claims against various clergy and the diocese. However, it is unclear if a settlement of these claims might eventually cost the diocese additional millions of dollars.
About half of the claims presented by Stobierski involved Lavigne, a serial pedophile who was laicized by Pope John Paul II because of the seriousness of his crimes.
At least some of the remaining unmediated claims involved less-serious, less frequent actions by priests against older alleged victims.
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