|Plaintiffs Make Deal for Release of Priests' Records
Claims against Parishes Put off during Bankruptcy
By Beth Miller
November 7, 2009
WILMINGTON — Plaintiffs in scores of child sexual abuse lawsuits pending against the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington agreed Friday not to pursue claims against the 28 parishes involved in those suits until the diocese completes its Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.
In exchange, attorneys for the diocese and parishes agreed to release the records of 11 priests named in the suits, as well as data on insurance policies they hold for such claims.
A series of eight jury trials — all with claims related to former priest Francis G. DeLuca — was to begin Oct. 19 in Delaware Superior Court. When the diocese filed for bankruptcy the night before, all 141 cases pending against it were put on hold. Because parishes were named as co-defendants in many of the cases, attorneys argued that they should be able to pursue their claims against those parishes, none of which had filed for Chapter 11 protection.
But Friday, Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger — whose firm represents the eight plaintiffs in the first series of scheduled trials — reached agreement with the diocese to put cases against the parishes on hold in exchange for the "long-sought" records of the 11 priests. And James Stang, a Los Angeles attorney speaking on behalf of the other plaintiffs, said they, too, would agree not to pursue the parishes while the bankruptcy proceeding continued.
The agreement was reached during a private conference before testimony was to begin Friday in the courtroom of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi.
Stang, attorney for the newly formed Committee of Unsecured Debtors — which represents all of the plaintiffs in abuse-related cases against the diocese — said the agreement would benefit all of them.
"The committee is taking a bigger picture in view of how this relates to other lawsuits," he said. "We believe it reflects pluses for all survivors, not just for the eight involved in this litigation. We believe it will move the case forward to accommodate the interests of our constituency."
Diocese attorney Tony Flynn said the agreement will allow the diocese to focus its attention on the bankruptcy proceeding without having to tend to ongoing trials in Superior Court.
Five cases, though, still may advance against parishes that were sued alone, without the diocese as a co-defendant. Those parishes include St. Ann's, St. Mary Magdalen, St. Francis de Sales, St. John the Beloved, Immaculate Conception, St. Mary Refuge of Sinners, St. John's/Holy Angels, St. Catherine of Siena, Holy Rosary and St. Thomas.
Records of 11 priests will be turned over to plaintiffs' attorneys. Flynn said the records of seven priests — who account for 56 of the cases pending against the diocese — already have been produced. Now, they will release the records of John A. Lind, William Irwin, Douglas Dempster, Carmen Vignola, James Richardson, Francis Rogers, Francis O'Brien, Henry Dreyer, Francis Cornely, Peter Harney, Joseph McGovern, and Harry Weaver.
The agreement does not affect the cases pending against religious orders and their priests — including the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the Norbertines, and the Capuchin friars.
Wilmington attorney Mark Reardon, who represents all of the religious orders and all but two of the parishes named in the suits, said the parishes will comply with the agreement reached Friday.
And the religious orders, though they have not filed for bankruptcy, would participate in discussions and agreements there if it was possible to resolve all of the claims that way, he said.
"If the court allows it, this is a time to think out of the box," Reardon said. "The more time lawyers spend in court, the longer these cases stay open and the less resources are available. Why not get all the interested parties around one table, have one mediation and one resolution? Where there's a will, there's a way."
Neuberger, who represents plaintiffs in almost 100 of the 141 cases pending against the diocese, said he did not know if a global settlement could be reached that would resolve all of the claims fairly.
"It depends on how much money they find," he said. "We believe the new bishop has been hiding assets since he took over 13 months ago."
Neuberger said he had reached agreement with Flynn to use the average settlements awarded in similar California cases — about $1.3 million — as a guideline. That agreement fell apart, he said, after Bishop W. Francis Malooly took charge of the diocese in 2008.
Flynn said agreement over the process fell apart when the diocese wanted to depose a plaintiff it did not know. The diocese later settled with that plaintiff — the late Douglas McClure — for $1.25 million.
"It was apparent to us after that they had abandoned the California average," Flynn said. "And we couldn't stick with the California average either."
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