Settlement of Clergy Sex Abuse Cases May Be Closer

By Linda Deutsch
Associated Press, carried in North County Times
January 7, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- With the possibility of civil trials looming in the new year, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese is deep in talks with lawyers for some 45 clergy sexual abuse victims seeking to settle the cases before they reach court, lawyers said Friday.

"The talks are ongoing," said J. Michael Hennigan, who represents the archdiocese and its leader, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney. "There's never been a time when they stopped."

Responding to a Los Angeles Times report that settlements may be imminent, Hennigan said, "We're closer than we were. But there are a lot of moving pieces here."

Hennigan said the cases most likely to be settled first are the so-called "uninsured cases," meaning that because of time limits, the archdiocese would have to pay damages from its own money. Such resolutions would involve only about 45 of the 560 cases filed. Attorneys on both sides have estimated that the cases warrant settlements of at least $1 million each.

Ray Boucher, lead attorney for Southern California plaintiffs, said, "We've been negotiating for three years. It's clear that the insurance companies are putting up major roadblocks.The archdiocese is discussing settling the uninsured cases which are prior to the early 1950s and after 1986. But it's too early to tell how likely it is the cases will settle. The average settlement would be in excess of $1 million."

Boucher said there has been more movement lately, but added, "I don't want to overhype it and create a sense of immediacy."

Attorney Andrea Leavitt, who represents molestation victims in San Diego County, notes that all the civil cases in line for trial had been delayed by the court to allow settlement negotiations to go forward.

"But after approximately two years in which the cases were stayed, not one offer was made to settle them to the best of my knowledge," Leavitt said.

In recent months, the court, seeing no apparent progress toward settlement, decided that some of the cases would be allowed to proceed, Leavitt said. Some of those cases are now headed for September trials.

Leavitt said she could not comment on any developments during recent confidential settlement talks. "I can't comment on numbers of cases or amounts of money" she said.

But both she and Boucher said that the looming trials are a major motivation for settlement.

The attorneys said "non-monetary issues" must also be addressed before the cases can be resolved. Those include the church's refusal to release priest personnel records being sought by a grand jury. That issue appears headed for a U.S. Supreme Court appeal.

The Los Angeles archdiocese is the largest in the nation and the settlements could set records.

Hennigan said Mahoney is anxious for a settlement in the interest of allowing victims to move on with their lives.

"Some of these people have been profoundly impacted," said Hennigan. "Some get over it and move on. But some are dramatically damaged. You can see it on their faces."

"The cardinal is sincere about trying to resolve the cases he has control over, which are the uninsured cases," Hennigan said. "He has a strong sense that continuing the cases keeps that pain in the forefront of these people's lives."


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