Sex Abuse Settlement Reached
Washington Archdiocese Will Split $1.3 Million Among 16 Men
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post [Washington DC]
December 16, 2006
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said yesterday it has reached a $1.3 million settlement with 16 men who were sexually abused by priests between 1962 and 1982.
Both the total dollar figure and the amount per victim -- an average of about $81,000 before legal fees -- are small compared with the sums negotiated by some other Catholic dioceses, particularly in California, where two recent settlements totaled $160 million and topped $1 million per victim.
But the victims in the Washington archdiocese were in a weaker legal position, because all of their potential claims were beyond the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits. In California, the legislature has allowed victims of child sexual abuse to sue for damages no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
"We feel the amount received by each victim was fair, given the legal defenses raised by the archdiocese," said the victims' attorney, Peter M. Gillon of the firm of Greenberg, Traurig. "These men are all truly suffering psychologically, financially and spiritually, and therefore we all agreed it was best to reach a settlement at this time, even if the amounts were not large."
One of the victims, George Kresslein Jr., said in an interview that he had hoped for a larger sum. But an even bigger disappointment, he said, was that his alleged abuser, the Rev. Paul Lavin, who was removed from ministry in 2002, has not admitted guilt.
"An admission means much more to me than the money," said Kresslein, 50, one of five men who have accused Lavin of molestation.
An attorney for the archdiocese, Kevin Baine, said that the settlement was "nowhere near the ballpark" of what some other dioceses have paid. But he maintained that it was magnanimous nonetheless.
"The archdiocese agreed to pay over $1 million to people who have no valid legal claims. Two of them have actually sued the archdiocese and lost in court," he said. "As I see it this is a remarkably generous gesture, and it should be recognized as that."
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national support group for victims, said he views the settlement as "a business decision" by the archdiocese.
Even when statutes of limitations appear to block lawsuits, dioceses always run the risk that a judge's ruling or a legislative change could open them to liability, as happened in California, Clohessy said.
"Bishops are terrified of being deposed and disclosing records and taking the witness stand. To prevent that, they pay settlements. Period," he said.
There was last-minute disagreement yesterday between the two sides over the number of victims participating in the settlement.
Baine, a partner in the firm Williams and Connolly who has also represented The Washington Post, said there were 18 participants, including two men who were allegedly abused as teenagers in the mid-1970s by a seminarian at Catholic University. Gillon said that those two men, whose names have not been made public, "decided not to go through with the settlement."
Both lawyers agreed that the exclusion of the two men would not dramatically affect the settlement's size. "I'm not going to discuss the specific amounts for particular victims, but the total will still round to $1.3 million," Baine said.
Gillon said that each of the 16 participating victims will receive between $10,000and $200,000, depending on the severity of the abuse and the strength of his individual legal case.
The settlement caps three years of negotiations. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said it leaves the archdiocese facing only one outstanding sex abuse lawsuit, a claim filed by the family of a teenager who allegedly was abused in 2001 by the Rev. A.J. Cote, a Dominican priest who served at Mother Seton Church in Germantown until 2002.
Nationally, the sex abuse scandal has cost the Catholic Church more than $1.5 billion in settlements, legal fees and related costs. According to studies commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 5,000 priests -- close to 5 percent of all who have served in the country -- have been credibly accused of abusing more than 12,500 minors since 1950. About 80 percent of the victims have been males.
According to Gibbs, the Washington archdiocese has spent $6 million on sex abuse cases, including the latest settlement, which she said will come from the archdiocese's self-insurance reserves, rather than from its operating budget or parish collections. She said 132 people, about 90 percent males, have made credible allegations against 28 priests in the archdiocese since 1947. Those 28 represent about 2.5 percent of all the priests who have served in the archdiocese, she said.
The settlement involves allegations of abuse by eight priests, all of whom have been removed from ministry. Seven have been prosecuted, and one, Edward Hartel, was acquitted. Lavin is the only one who has not faced criminal charges, Gibbs said. The others are Thomas Schaeffer, Alphonsus Smith, Edward Pritchard, James Finan, Robert Petrella and Raymond Callahan.
Since the sex abuse scandal erupted with particular fury in Boston in 2002, four U.S. dioceses -- Tucson; Spokane, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and Davenport, Iowa -- have sought bankruptcy protection from lawsuits.
Baine suggested that the Washington archdiocese has fared better financially because it has handled allegations properly.
"Other dioceses have other problems, and I'm not going to comment on them. But this archdiocese has had a child protection policy in effect for more than 20 years," he said. "For as long as I've been involved, the archdiocese has handled these cases as they should be handled, by showing compassion for the victims, by reporting them to the authorities and by taking decisive action when there are legitimate claims."
Terry McKiernan, who tracks sex abuse cases and statistics for bishopaccountability.org, a Boston-based group, said he is skeptical of claims that Washington, or any other diocese, has a much cleaner record than the church as a whole.
"I think the variation is not so much in performance as in availability of data" on individual dioceses, he said. In places such as Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Manchester, N.H., where grand juries have investigated the church's handling of sex abuse cases, the percentage of abusers appears to be higher, he said.
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