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  Diocese Faces New Claims of Sex Abuse
Says It Cannot Afford to Settle 140 Cases Now

By Kevin Cullen
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
September 12, 2004

Less than a year after it paid $85 million to settle 541 sexual-abuse claims, the Archdiocese of Boston is facing at least 140 new claims that a church spokesman says the church cannot now afford to settle, in part because it has been unable to recoup money from its insurance policies to cover last year's settlement.

The new claims, which lawyers handling the cases say involve charges against priests that span the 1950s to the 1980s, have presented Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley with a potentially huge bill. Even if the suits were settled for the $20,000 maximum allowed under the charitable immunity standard, the archdiocese could be facing claims worth nearly $3 million. If the archdiocese followed the standard it set in settling the 541 cases last year, the bill would be more in the range of $20 million, legal analysts say.

The archdiocese borrowed the money used to settle the cases last December, and since then has sold the historic cardinal's residence and surrounding land in Brighton to Boston College for $107 million to pay down its debts. It has also slated 82 parishes for closure as part of a drastic cost-cutting effort and realignment.

But the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for O'Malley, said none of the funds raised by the property sale or by closing parishes would be used to settle sexual abuse claims.

"Our intention is that the money used to pay the settlements should come from the insurance sources, not pastoral sources," said Coyne. "All of our effort is to settle the actions we've taken against our insurers."

Of the priests who are the subjects of the new allegations, Coyne said, only one had not been accused by plaintiffs from last year's settlement. Coyne said the name of that priest was not available.

Carmen L. Durso, one of the dozen or so lawyers who have sent claims to the archdiocese since last year's settlement, said many of those who came forward after last year's settlement did so because they believed they would be treated fairly, and compassionately, by O'Malley.

"These are largely timid souls who said they didn't know what they would go through," said Durso. "They felt it was safe to come forward now. They felt that O'Malley said the right things, that they'd be treated OK. O'Malley's demeanor was certainly a plus in people coming forward."

Other lawyers familiar with the claims say the archdiocese's lawyer, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., has informed plaintiff attorneys the archdiocese is not prepared to enter negotiations, given the uncertainties of its finances. Hannigan declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Coyne, who said that the archdiocese has not begun negotiations on the new claims because it does not have the money to settle them. ! "Tom [Hannigan] said everyone's understood that from the very beginning. We've been letting the lawyers know that we would not be moving forward with negotiations until we have settled with our insurance carriers," said Coyne.

Coyne said lawyers representing alleged victims have been understanding of the archdiocese's financial situation, but at least one lawyer said he is unmoved by the archdiocese's claims that it cannot settle any new cases until it recoups insurance money.

Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer whose litigation against the late defrocked priest John Geoghan led to the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic church worldwide and forced Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign as archbishop of Boston, said he would push forward with his claims. Garabedian said he believes the archdiocese has plenty of resources to settle the claims.

"They always seem to have an excuse," said Garabedian. "I'm just preparing for trial."

Garabedian said he represents 41 people who have filed claims against archdiocesan priests since last year's settlement. He said he referred some of the cases to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley to determine whether prosecution is possible or if the statute of limitations has passed.

David Procopio, a spokesman for Conley, said the district attorney's office has reviewed three cases for possible prosecution; one has been ruled out as being beyond the statute of limitations, a second appears to be beyond the statute but is still under review, as is the third case.

Asked why the alleged victims came forward only after last year's settlement, Garabedian said long delays in filing complaints are not unusual, given the stigma attached to making such allegations, and the emotional strain on those making them.

"These are the results of the wholesale molestation of children over a period of 50 years or more. It would be naive to think that this would culminate in five or six years. It occurred over decades, it will come out over decades," he said.

Coyne said there was no intention by the archdiocese to play "hard ball" with the alleged victims who came forward after last year's settlement.

"We have not decided to take any different strategy," said Coyne.

But he said it was too early to estimate how much money the new claims might cost the archdiocese.

Boston's situation is not unique. In July, the Diocese of Springfield, which covers Western Massachusetts, settled for $7.5 million with 45 people who said they were abused by priests. Since then, more people have come forward saying they, too, were abused by priests from that diocese.

John J. Stobierski, the Greenfield lawyer who represented the 45 who settled, said he is currently trying to corroborate the allegations of up to 15 people alleging abuse before filing claims or suits. Durso, meanwhile, said he represents about 10 people with outstanding claims in the Springfield diocese.

Stobierski said the new claims appear to come from people who were too timid, or too skeptical, to come forward before seeing the diocese settle with his 45 other clients.

"I think they needed to see the diocese was serious about settling before they would come forward," he said.

Lawyers said the Boston archdiocese's legal effort to recoup money from its insurers is in the relatively early stages, and said it was unclear how long it might take. Hannigan employed the same strategy when he sued insurers to cover a reported $5 million settlement O'Malley reached with the victims of defrocked priest James Porter when O'Malley was the bishop of Fall River in the 1990s.

It took Hannigan several years to prevail in that case, and he did so with a mixture of aggressive litigation and luck, the latter supplied, as it happened, by the plaintiffs in the cases.

The Fall River diocese insurers were insisting its policies didn't cover sexual abuse by priests, a claim that was undermined by chance by a paralegal who worked for the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Roderick MacLeish.

MacLeish said one of his former paralegals, Paul Munson, was a Buddhist, and sometime after Hannigan filed suit, Munson called a bookshop to order a Buddhist book.

"Paul and the woman at the bookshop got talking and she ends up telling him that she was the adjuster at the insurance company, and that she had said there was coverage when the company claimed there was not," said MacLeish.

"We took an affidavit from her and the insurance company caved pretty quickly," he said.

Other lawyers involved in the case confirmed the role Munson played in unwittingly finding the former adjuster.

MacLeish said he gave Munson a bonus, and that Munson used it to go on a spiritual retreat.

Copyright 2004 Globe

 
 

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