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  Archdiocese Opts to Settle Abuse Suits

By Noaki Schwartz and Tania Valdemoro
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
September 23, 2004

The Archdiocese of Miami, which since 2002 has relentlessly challenged lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by its priests, says it has settled as many as 27 of its 35 lawsuits in the past few months.

The decision allows the priests and the alleged victims to move on with their lives, said Mary Ross Agosta, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese. Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade and Broward State attorneys' offices said they could not pursue criminal charges on most cases because the statute of limitations had expired. That cleared the way for the archdiocese to enter into mediation.

"We had to question the wisdom of pursuing a defense of ongoing lawsuits versus entering a reasonable settlement," Agosta said, adding that the archdiocese's insurance will cover the costs.

On Wednesday, Jeffrey Herman, an Aventura attorney who filed and settled 23 cases against the archdiocese, said it has paid his clients a total of $3.43 million. He settled nine cases against five priests -- the Rev. Ricardo Castellanos, the Rev. Joseph Cinesi, the Rev. Joseph Huck and the Rev. Alvaro Guichard and former priest Ernesto Garcia-Rubio -- on Tuesday, for $1.35 million.

In the coming months, even more cases could be settled. Last week, Miami attorney Joel Magolnick settled the last of his four lawsuits involving TV evangelist Rev. Ricardo Castellanos and the Rev. Ronald John Luka for $150,000 each. Another attorney, Patrick Noaker, who is handling four cases, says they hope to settle some soon.

The mother of a now dead victim, Miguel Chinchilla, expressed both relief and disappointment.

"I don't think I will ever be healed completely," said Rita Chinchilla. "[But] thanks to Herman, we have come to an end," she said, her voice quivering with emotion.

The Chinchilla family's April 2002 lawsuit was the first of a wave of claims against the archdiocese. It alleged that Chinchilla, a former altar boy at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, was sexually abused by Castellanos and Guichard in the 1970s.

As part of the settlement, the archdiocese is not admitting guilt, leading critics to say that the decision to settle was purely financial. David Clohessy, the executive director of the support group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called it "painful" not to acknowledge the alleged abuse.

"They're doing this because they have no choice," he said. "They know that if there's ever a chance to restore the shattered trust of good devout parishioners, it can only happen by putting this behind them -- it's a business decision."

Manuel A. Garcia-Linares, a Miami attorney who represents Guichard, agreed. He and his client said they did not know about the settlement until they read about it in an archdiocese memo. The notice said the archdiocese settled not on the merit of the cases but because of the high costs of the defense, he said.

"We specifically told the archdiocese we would not agree to any settlement and then totally behind our back without notifying us, they decided to settle our cases," he said.

Guichard, who is named in four lawsuits, thinks the church has opened itself up to more litigation.

"The priests are the ones who are punished," he said. "The settlements are very bad because it's a green light to lie. [The archdiocese] is welcoming these false stories and rewarding them."

While the settlements can help the alleged victims, it is clear that money won't resolve everything.

Guichard arrived uninvited at Wednesday's news conference and sat beside his accusers, the Chinchilla family. A shouting match ensued, and at one point, Rita Chinchilla left the conference.

"[Guichard] was one of two priests who robbed [Miguel's] innocence, destroyed his life and tore up my family," said brother, Ignacio Chinchilla.

The priest fired back: "All your lawsuits are false! I accuse the Chinchilla family of committing character assassination and public defamation with the intent of collecting money because they are saying lies!"

The conference ended when the law firm called the Aventura Police Department to take Guichard away.

For more information on the lawsuits, accused priests and archdiocese policy read "A Time to Heal" at http://www.miamiarch.org.

 
 

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