88 Victims Accept Offer from Church
Arbitrator Will Decide Awards in Abuse Cases
By Michael Levenson
March 10, 2006
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said yesterday that all 88 people who were offered arbitration to settle claims of sexual abuse by priests had agreed to let an arbitrator decide their compensation. The archdiocese said the awards are expected to average $75,000, about half the average amount that it paid to 554 plaintiffs in a landmark settlement in 2003.
Lawyers for the victims had harshly criticized the archdiocese when the deal was offered in December and said yesterday their clients were still unhappy. But the lawyers said their clients had decided they would rather accept the offer than go through the legal and emotional ordeal of fighting the archdiocese in court.
"They're all just tired," said Carmen L. Durso, who represents 14 of the victims. "They all just want it to stop."
The deal is an important step for Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who has made resolving abuse claims a priority.
"From the archdiocese's point of view, this is an important first step to resolve claims," said Kelly Lynch, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. "We're very pleased with the response the settlement offers generated and look forward to moving forward."
Under the deal, the 88 victims will receive awards of between $5,000 and $200,000. An arbitrator, Paul A. Finn, of Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, will determine the amount each will get based on the severity of the abuse, and the plaintiff must accept that amount.
Hearings with Finn and victims are scheduled for later this month and next month, Lynch said. Under the agreement, arbitrations will end April 28, and awards will be issued by May 8, with checks delivered by May 15.
"The archdiocese presented this settlement program in good faith to compensate those survivors who have been abused by priests of the archdiocese and to do so in a way that is sensitive to the pastoral needs of the survivors," the archdiocese said in a statement.
Lawyers for the victims said their clients had accepted the arbitration offer reluctantly, knowing they would have difficulty taking their cases to court. Under the statute of limitations, abuse claims must be brought within three years of the alleged abuse, three years from when the victim recalls the abuse or links it to psychological problems, or, in the case of a minor, three years from when the victim turned 18.
Most of the claims involve victims who allege abuse decades ago, the lawyers say.
Lawyers also cited another hurdle to successfully suing the archdiocese. The church is protected by a state law that limits the financial liability of charitable institutions facing civil lawsuits.
When the victims' lawyers disclosed the proposed settlement in December, they denounced the offer as "shocking," "demeaning," and "gratuitously offensive." At the time, the archdiocese argued that it could not afford awards as generous as those paid out in 2003 and that it was trying to be fair and compassionate to the second wave of alleged victims.
"The dollar amounts, while not as high as in the global settlement, reflect the present financial capability of the archdiocese and recognize its deteriorated financial condition since the time of the last settlement," the archdiocese said in a December statement.
A lawyer who represents 28 victims said yesterday that his clients had signed the deal "unenthusiastically."
"The cold reality is the victims want to heal and move on with their lives, to obtain some sort of closure," said the lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian. "And instead of these cases going on for years, they just want some sort of relief now. They realize that the archdiocese doesn't care about them. They feel insulted by the settlement, and they feel revictimized."
Alan L. Cantor, who represents 16 victims, said his clients had hoped to receive awards equal to those paid in 2003. But the archdiocese, which has been struggling financially since that $85 million settlement, made clear during negotiations that it was not willing to offer that much, he said.
"Their choice was to accept this offer or litigate their case," Cantor said of his clients. "Being frank with the clients about the difficulty litigating the claims, they felt this process preferable than going to court and facing the possibility of having their cases dismissed."
In addition to the cash awards, the archdiocese has agreed to pay for psychological counseling for victims, as it did in 2003, Lynch said. Garabedian said some victims would also like to sit down with O'Malley and attend special Masses to help them heal.
But the archdiocese has not agreed to those steps, Garabedian said.
"It is very important that victims fill the emotional void created by them being victimized by pedophiles," Garabedian said. "The money only is symbolic."
The settlement announced yesterday leaves unresolved an additional 100 claims made by people who say they were sexually abused by priests or other church workers, and they could face tougher paths in arbitration or end up in court.
Thirty of those cases will be arbitrated separately, because the archdiocese says it does not have enough evidence to determine the credibility of the abuse claims, Lynch said. In those cases, Finn, the arbitrator, must first decide whether the abuse occurred before agreeing to award settlements, Lynch said.
The remaining 70 cases involve claims of abuse against lay people and against priests from Roman Catholic orders, Lynch said. The archdiocese declined to automatically submit those cases to an arbitrator, choosing to handle them individually. That means that plaintiffs will have to choose whether to go to court, pursue individual settlements, or drop claims. Lynch said no timeline has been set to handle those cases.
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