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  Sex Abuse Claims Could Cost Diocese $1.6 Billion
If Negotiations with Ventura County Plaintiffs Fail, Catholic Church Could Be Put on Trial, Attorney Says

By Tom Kisken
Ventura County Star [California]
January 9, 2005

More than 540 child molestation claims against the Catholic diocese that includes Ventura County could be settled before summer at a cost as high as $1.6 billion. If negotiations fail, the church could be put on trial in a civil court marathon that takes three decades to complete.

The contrasting extremes only increase Ann Sargent's desire for what alleged molestation victims in Orange County received Monday when a judge announced details of a record-setting $100 million settlement with the Diocese of Orange: An ending.

"There was closure," said Sargent, who alleges she was molested by an Oxnard priest when she was about 15. "They wouldn't be required to rehash it for some stranger again."

Three years after a trickle of child molestation allegations against priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles swelled into a flood that includes at least 11 former Ventura County priests accused of abusing 136 people, the scandal's path to a final chapter is obstructed by caveats and contradictions.

A Los Angeles church official says a settlement offer could come within a month, but lawyers are scheduled to meet with a judge this week to plan the first wave of trials.

Church officials say insurance coverage protects the church from bankruptcy and also provides a shield for parishes and Catholic schools, but a lead negotiator says at least some insurance carriers are refusing to settle. In Boston, parishioners are convinced the financial drain of an $85 million sex abuse settlement is helping force about 80 parishes to close.

In Ventura County, some plaintiffs don't want to settle. They want trials that reveal horrifying violations of trust that may have later led to suicide attempts, drug abuse and failed marriages. Even more than revealing abusive priests, they want to expose church officials who they believe let the molestations happen.

Sargent, who twice tried to kill herself, wants truth and justice too. Mostly, she wants it all to be over. If a settlement doesn't happen, she'll force herself to testify in a trial. It would be a nightmare.

"I absolutely don't want to," she said, sitting on the edge of a couch in her Ojai home. "I'll just crumble if I get up there and have some attorney from the archdiocese take apart the details of my history."

Calculating the price of pain

Allegations in Ventura County embody the horrors of a national sex abuse scandal.

About 15 former altar boys and parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard have filed lawsuits saying they were molested in the 1970s and '80s by the Rev. Fidencio Silva, then an associate pastor and godfather for at least one of his alleged victims. Silva denied the claims.

"He could do what he wanted," said John Enriquez, claiming Silva first molested him when he was an altar boy. "He was the gateway to God."

Other accusations involved the Rev. Michael Wempe, who bounced from Simi Valley to Westlake Village to Ventura to Lancaster to Santa Paula. The Rev. Carl Sutphin, whose assignments included a parish in Camarillo and a hospital in Oxnard, was accused of sexually abusing 23 people, according to church records. Both men have said they weren't guilty.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reinforced California's statute of limitations erased the vast majority of criminal charges because most of the alleged abuse happened before 1988. That pushed the clergy abuse scandal toward civil courts in the form of lawsuits claiming the archdiocese either knew of molestation complaints or should have known.

To keep the 544 molestation cases from swamping courts, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and lawyers for the archdiocese and plaintiffs have been mapping a settlement plan in private meetings that began two years ago.

"We're not proud of this part of our history. We'd like this to be part of our past and not our future," archdiocese lawyer J. Michael Hennigan said, comparing the church's need for settlement to that of victims. "We want it, too, in our own way, as much as they do."

Settlement will require a release of church personnel information, currently being decided in court, and an average of $2.5 million to $3 million for each victim, said Ray Boucher, lead attorney for plaintiffs. Hennigan said the figures seem "preposterously high" but acknowledged that if settlement talks fail, there's at least a chance juries would award plaintiffs even more.

"The coverage could be in the billions," he said. "No one knows."

Focusing on responsibility

The numbers are so astronomical it can seem to victims as if lawyers are talking about Monopoly money. While defending the concept of making the church pay for mistakes, they also say focusing solely on cash misses the point.

"Giving me a check will not heal the wounds," said Eric Barragan of Santa Paula. "Not once have they said they're sorry. That's where the healing's going to begin."

Barragan and his brother, Manuel, say they were molested by the Rev. Carlos Rene Rodriguez beginning when they were about 12. Rodriguez, who later left the priesthood, pleaded guilty to molesting the brothers earlier this year and is serving eight years in prison.

An older Barragan brother, Edgar, says he was also molested by Rodriguez, though the statute of limitations kept him out of the criminal complaint. All three brothers have been in alcohol and drug rehabilitation. All questioned their faith. At least one considered suicide.

They're suing Rodriguez's religious order, the Vincentian Fathers, and the archdiocese. They said leaders of both institutions should have barred Rodriguez from the ministry after he was accused of molesting a boy at a Los Angeles parish before ever meeting the Barragans.

"I want the archdiocese to take responsibility ... to say, 'We know what happened. We knew we were sending a perpetrator to Santa Paula. We didn't care,' " Eric Barragan said.

But the archdiocese has apologized repeatedly to all victims, said spokesman Tod Tamberg, and a church report released earlier this year revealed that the religious order sent Rodriguez to a treatment center for psychotherapy after the Los Angeles abuse complaint. Then the archdiocese assigned him to a marriage encounter ministry. That's where he met the Barragan family.

"Was it inadequate by today's standards? Absolutely," said Tamberg, "but at the time we thought that was an appropriate response."

Now the archdiocese forces priests believed to have committed sexual abuse out of the ministry, Tamberg said. Church employees talk to victims about claims that molestation shattered their lives, understanding the impact is different for each person. The church pays for whatever therapy is needed, including treatment received by the Barragan brothers.

Eric Barragan said he severed his therapy because he didn't want the church involved. He wants his case to go to trial but thinks settlement is inevitable and will hinge on virtually all 544 plaintiffs agreeing to drop their cases. He won't block that process but wants to make sure any deal involves the church revealing records that show what leaders knew about alleged molestations.

Church officials argued successfully to keep some personnel records from being handed over to criminal prosecutors but were ready to release summarized versions on the Internet Tuesday night. They were stopped by a court appeal filed by a lawyer representing about 25 priests accused of sexual abuse.

Observers say victims want more than civil courts can provide, which in a strange way is why settlements revolve around money.

"The fact is a check from a diocese may well be the only acknowledgment that victims ever get," said David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Planning a wave of trials

As lawyers met privately with one judge to talk about settlement, they strategized with another about civil court trials. Cases might be organized by priest, meaning plaintiffs suing the church about the same person would be grouped in one trial.

Boucher said the first trials, which could begin in as soon as five months if there isn't a settlement, could involve former Ventura County priests Sutphin and Silva.

Though he thinks the process could be streamlined so as many as 60 claims could be tried this summer, Boucher said it's also possible the court process could drag on for more than 30 years.

"At least three decades," added Hennigan, repeating the church's desire to settle. "Whether there was one case or 1,000, we want them over with."

A financial report released Friday showed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles spent about $4 million in its 2004 fiscal year on legal fees and other costs related to sexual abuse allegations. The church owned about $101 million of land and property, excluding the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and had about $119 million in unrestricted assets, according to the report. Hennigan said some land would possibly be sold in a settlement.

But the church won't file for bankruptcy like dioceses in Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., he said. It won't agree to any settlement that drains resources from existing ministries, and it won't wait for the Vatican to come to the rescue.

"Money does not flow from Rome," Hennigan said. "It flows to Rome."

Instead, the archdiocese is banking on insurance policies covering church liability to absorb most of the burden. So are plaintiffs, with Boucher asserting that insurers will have to cover at least 85 percent of a settlement.

"I don't think there's anyone who believes the archdiocese has a half billion in liquid assets," he said.

The lawsuits allege molestation as far back as 1931, but the church's insurance policies don't start until 20 years later and over the next half-century involves more than a dozen carriers.

Boucher said the larger problem is that carriers don't want to pay. He said they are worried that a settlement of more than $1 billion would set a precedent that could be followed by courts across the nation.

They want trials that drag on for years so that cases are dropped and financial losses minimized, he said.

Only one insurer, Chicago Insurance Co., is fighting the church in court, saying a policy's liability for sexual abuse ended with a $25,000 payout. Sabia Schwarzer, spokeswoman for another carrier, Allianz, said her company wants to be part of a settlement.

Pete Moraga, spokesman for a trade group called the Insurance Information Network, said some carriers may be asking the same questions as plaintiffs.

"There's no insurance for intentional harm," he said. "To what extent did the churches know about this abuse, and to what extent did they keep it from happening? That's what's going to play out."

Trickling down to local parishes

A church spokesman has said there are no scenarios in which the cost of a settlement would close individual parishes.

But Friday's financial statement carefully avoids guaranteeing that money from parishes or Catholic schools would not be targeted in a settlement, noting that courts and plaintiffs in other regions are looking at that very issue.

Some parishioners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Paula say the possibilities are frightening.

However, even if a settlement makes things tighter at their already struggling parish, they can't imagine a crisis that would force the church to close.

"We will survive," said Angela Borrego-Chavez, a member here for 56 years.

Anne Green knows nothing of the Santa Paula parish or of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

What she does know is that the Boston-area church where she was baptized and has attended all her life closed two weeks ago.

Sacred Heart Church in South Natick is among about 80 parishes scheduled to be closed by July.

Archdiocese of Boston officials say the closings are triggered by a shortage of priests and dwindling attendance. They say the savings won't be used to pay off sex abuse claims, though they acknowledge reductions in parish giving have worsened financial hardships.

"We've lost trust in what they say," said Green, who sees a direct link between a sexual abuse settlement of $85 million in 2003 and the parish closings.

She was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave her parish's final Christmas Eve Mass, though charges were dropped.

The experience prompts her advice to California parishioners.

"I would recommend they go out and check who holds the deed to their parish," she said.

 
 

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