|San Bernardino Diocese Settles 11 Sexual-Abuse Cases
By Richard Brooks and Chris Richard
September 7, 2007
San Bernardino - The Catholic Church will pay $15.1 million to 11 people who say priests abused them, according to a tentative settlement announced Friday by the Diocese of San Bernardino.
"To the victims, I pray that the God of mercy and light will walk with you on your journey toward healing," Bishop Gerald Barnes said during a news conference. "I am so sorry."
Barnes did not accept questions.
The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese, called the pact an "agreement in principle," a prelude to a signed settlement. Among the details to be worked out: When and how the payments will be made.
Of the 16 lawsuits against the diocese, five are not resolved by the agreement.
To abuse victim Nicki Rister, who first accused her parish priest of abusing her in 1989, the bishop's apology rang false.
"They're not willing to step forward. They fought all this time. They paid millions of dollars for attorneys. Why didn't they just take care of it in the beginning?" Rister asked.
Rister, now 53 and living in Colorado, said her former priest, Monsignor Patrick O'Keeffe, molested her at a Highland church for five months in 1972, when she was a lonely 17-year-old girl.
She had hoped to confront officials this year in court.
"It's such a strange feeling," Rister said. "I thought I'd be happy about the settlement. It's nothing like that at all. I've been crying all afternoon. It's not a happy cry. It's more a confused cry."
"The church is admitting that something happened to me, but they don't want to go into trial and admit it, and admit what they didn't do to stop him."
O'Keeffe was dismissed from all parish duties in 1994 after the diocese settled a lawsuit over a separate accusation of sexual misconduct. He returned to his native Ireland in 2002.
Church officials declined to reveal the names of the parishes and eight priests in the settled cases.
Lincoln described the status of the priests by saying three have left the priesthood, one is dead, one is incarcerated, one has retired outside California, and two continue to minister within the diocese because church officials don't believe the allegations against them are credible.
No Acceptance of Blame
The agreement, which does not include a formal acceptance of blame by the diocese, is part of a larger pact that calls for the Diocese of San Diego to settle its 133 cases for $198.1 million, Lincoln said.
The Diocese of San Bernardino was created in 1978 out of an area that had been part of the Diocese of San Diego.
Twenty-eight of the cases against the San Diego Diocese involve abuse that occurred before the split, and San Diego diocesan officials have agreed to pay the settlement for those cases, Lincoln said.
Negotiations are continuing on the five unresolved San Bernardino cases, he said.
About half of the $15 million settlement for the San Bernardino cases will be paid by the diocese's insurance carriers, and the rest will come from diocesan reserve funds, assets and financing, officials said.
"Weekly donations made by parishioners will not be used to pay off the settlement," the diocese said in a written statement issued Friday.
Personnel Files in Limbo
In abuse litigation across the country, plaintiffs have often demanded the public release of personnel records concerning accused abusers. Such records, plaintiffs claim, shed light on church officials' responses to abuse complaints.
San Bernardino diocesan attorney Bill Lemann said final settlement discussions will include disclosure of accused molesters' personnel records.
"I can tell you that any issues relating to the disclosure of records of any perpetrator will be determined by a private neutral judge, as in mediation," Lemann said. "There's a process you have to go through, and they have a right to hire counsel. It's really not the bishop's decision."
Church officials said steps have been taken to prevent further wrongdoing, including fingerprinting more than 18,000 diocesan personnel, creation of a toll-free hot line to report sexual abuse, training of 15,000 diocesan personnel volunteers and parents in how to detect and prevent abuse, and providing similar training for 60,000 children.
Other efforts include a monthly retreat for adults who were victims of sexual abuse as children and counseling for victims of sexual abuse by diocesan personnel.
"We are very confident . . . with the safeguards we have created, that we have a safe environment in our parishes," Lincoln said.
She No Longer Trusts
For her part, Rister said she can no longer trust the church. It's difficult, she said, to trust at all.
She doesn't yet know how much money she'll receive. Her attorney urged her to go to a nice restaurant to celebrate Friday night.
Instead, she planned to spend the evening quietly at home, sharing a supper of bean burritos with her husband and son.
"I don't think there's anything to celebrate about," Rister said. "It doesn't change anything. I'm still an abuse victim and money doesn't change that. This is about a lifetime of shame."
Reach Richard Brooks at 909-806-3057 or rbrooks@PE.com
Reach Chris Richard at 909-806-3076 or crichard@PE.com
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