Diocese to Settle Abuse Suit
Lawyers: Judge Gives Preliminary OK in Case Involving Catholic Priests
By Adam Parker
The Post and Courier [Charleston SC]
January 27, 2007
Sexual abuse cases that have been festering within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston for decades might finally be resolved by the courts, according to an announcement Friday.
Lawyers representing the diocese and the individuals who suffered abuse by priests during the 1960s and during the early 1980s said Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein gave preliminary approval Jan. 19 to a settlement agreement that would establish a funding pool of $5 million and a second pool of $7 million, to be distributed to victims and their spouses and parents.
The diocese is responsible for providing the funds, which will come from interest and investment income, insurance coverage and, if necessary, the sale of church properties, according to John Barker, the diocese's financial officer.
"Hopefully, this class settlement will bring to a close this sad and shameful chapter, and enable victims to have some closure, compensation and peace," said Lawrence Richter, lead attorney for the claimants. "These individuals can never be fully compensated, nor their suffering taken away. I anticipate they will find comfort in the hope that their actions may serve as a deterrent to future victimization by those who hold a public trust."
The diocese's policies governing how staff members are hired and how allegations of sexual abuse are investigated were revised in 1984 and updated in 1997 and 2002, according to the diocese's lawyer Peter Shahid Jr. Today, the screening process involves a criminal background and credit check as well as a training program, he said.
The parties will obtain final approval of the settlement at a fairness hearing scheduled for March 9 in the Dorchester County Court of Common Pleas. The class-action suit is the culmination of years of independent legal claims, said David Haller, of Richter & Haller.
The two lawyers said they have been working on this settlement for months and assumed it had been reached in June, but the diocese failed to fund an escrow account within the 30-day legal limit. Later in the summer, the two lawyers submitted a motion to compel the diocese to establish the account, then agreed to grant the diocese additional time to research the cases and consult with Catholic officials.
"We feel like we've been jerked around," Richter said in a December interview.
Shalid said that litigation takes time, and that the important thing is that a resolution has been reached that's agreeable to all involved.
Fr. James Nyhan had been charged with committing lewd acts on children under the age of 14. But a plea bargain reached April 24 last year spared the former priest prison time.
Three children in the seventh- and eighth-grades were victimized by Nyhan in the early 1980s when Nyhan worked at the Nativity Church and School on Folly Road after relocating to the area from Boston.
Under terms of the plea, Nyhan admitted guilt to three counts of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He was given a 10-year sentence on each count, but those were suspended in favor of five years of probation.
Nyhan also was ordered to undergo sex abuse counseling and to stay away from all children who are not family members. He did not have to register as a sex offender in South Carolina or in his new home state of California.
Fr. Lawrence Sheedy, now deceased, was named in court documents as the man who forced a boy living at a Catholic orphanage in Charleston to have sex in 1967 and 1968. The boy was 13 when the assaults began.
"What Father did, he took advantage of my youth and my naiveness," John Morris told WIS-TV of Columbia, where he now lives with his family. "And because he was my priest, unfortunately I allowed it."
Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the victims' courage to speak up and warn others.
"We're generally skeptical of class-action agreements in clergy sex abuse cases, because they rarely lead to exposing the truth about horrific sex crimes by priests and cover ups by bishops," Dorris said in a statement. "But we're also keenly aware that in many states, archaic, predator-friendly laws give child sex victims little recourse in the courts. We need to be vigilant to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. We need to demand accountability from our spiritual leaders."
At a press conference Friday, Bishop Robert Baker said sexual assault is an unfortunate reality and that children require special protection because they cannot defend themselves.
"For the past several years, my staff and I have been working diligently with victims of sexual abuse to come to a just resolution," he said. "The good of the Church is tied to the spiritual good of all her members, without exception."
Shahid said the class-action settlement names four "class representatives" whose cases were resolved in June and eight known unresolved claims. Since the 1950s, the diocese has seen 50 claims involving 28 Catholic priests and lay people named as perpetrators, and paid just under $3 million to the victims, Shahid said.
Barker said a neutral arbitrator will review each claim and decide on an appropriate settlement amount to be drawn from the $12 million pool. By capping liability at $12 million, the diocese expects to avoid bankruptcy and ensure that money is available to anyone with a legitimate claim.
What it means
A preliminary settlement reached by victims of sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston earmarks $12 million to distribute to victims participating in the classaction suit.
Under the agreement's terms, victims could get anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 while spouses and parents would receive $20,000.
To file claims
The diocese encourages victims to file claims by contacting: Class Counsel, Richter & Haller, Attorneys and Counselors at Law, (843) 849 6000. The claim period lasts 120 days, beginning March 9.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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