Acrimony Splits Victims, Church in Mediation Process

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
September 12, 2004

Begun last December with high hopes, mediation between the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a group now totaling about 75 victims of sexual abuse by priests has fractured to the point that the two sides do not even agree on why they have not met for several months.

Victims contend the archdiocese made non-negotiable offers and dragged its feet on scheduling meetings after the Legislature and governor approved a new clergy sexual-abuse law. That law passed without a provision allowing victims in old cases to get around state Supreme Court decisions and statutes of limitation to sue the church.

Victims also claim that the archdiocese offered far less restitution than some other dioceses, failed to get representatives of religious-order priests to participate in mediation and is pushing all victims into individual mediation.

But Archdiocesan officials contend that various issues, including how to involve religious orders in the process, remain on the table along with an open invitation to continue meeting. They defend separate, independent mediation for individuals and small groups, saying it has helped victims begin to heal.

No sessions are scheduled.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., gave checks Aug. 31 to 46 people in a $7 million settlement of sexual misconduct over decades by 18 diocesan and religious-order priests, that diocese's newspaper, The Catholic Observer, reported last week. Proceeds from sales of two properties also will be distributed.

In June 2003, the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., reached a $27.5 million settlement with 240 plaintiffs who had filed civil suits. Nineteen had named a religious order - the Province of Our Lady of Consolation, conventual Franciscans - as a co-defendent in the suits, said Glenn Rutherford, assistant editor of its archdiocesan newspaper, The Record.

The religious order's financial contribution to the settlement was kept confidential.

Jim Smith, the attorney representing Milwaukee's group, said the Louisville archdiocese has less than one-third as many Catholics as Milwaukee's but paid nearly $115,000 per victim.

Last year, the Archdiocese of Boston's $85 million settlement with 552 victims represented $154,000 per victim, while the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., paid $88,000 per victim in a $15.5 million settlement with 176 victims, Smith said.

Peter Isely and Mark Salmon, leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and of the group mediation, contend sexual abuse settlements in the Milwaukee archdiocese averaged around $150,000 before Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1990s protected churches from victims' lawsuits.

Some victims who left the group and went through individual mediation recently got settlements of $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000, depending on the severity of the abuse, Isely said.

Eva Soeka, who designed and oversees the independent mediation process for individuals, said the settlements were not based on categories of abuse, but she would not discuss them. Soeka, a nationally respected mediator and director of the Center for Dispute Resolution Education at Marquette University, said a report would be released within 10 days.

Milwaukee's large-group mediation was launched last year at the request of SNAP shortly after Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan announced that he would sell certain archdiocesan buildings and land to create a settlement fund of $3.5 million to $4.5 million.

The group sessions began Dec. 18, mediated by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske and Daniel Blinka, both professors at Marquette University Law School. Geske said Tuesday that professional restrictions prevented her from commenting on the mediation.

Smith said mediators presented an archdiocesan proposal March 8 that included these non-negotiable points:

There would be a pot of up to $4.5 million for settlements, but it was already shrinking because of individual settlements. The money would be used to assist only victims of sexual abuse by diocesan priests, not religious order priests' victims, estimated to be about a third of the victims group.

The entire original amount would have averaged $60,000 per person for 75 victims.

Group participants abused by diocesan priests would go through an arbitration-like process where independent third parties would determine the validity of each claim and the value or restitution merited.

SNAP's representatives rejected the proposal.

The separation of victims angered Isely and Salmon, who insist they were given assurances that victims of religious-order priests would be involved.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said Dolan asked religious orders to participate in the group mediation, but none has. Dolan named diocesan priests in July who had records of credible sexual abuse allegations, but area religious orders have not complied with Dolan's request to do the same.

"If he (Dolan) doesn't have any control over religious orders, we've got to get into court, because that's the only way that we are going to get any control for half the clergy in the state," Isely said.


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