O'Malley Weathers Another Round of Abuse Crisis Negotiations

By Denise Lavoie
The Associated Press, carried in
January 13, 2006

BOSTON --Archbishop Sean O'Malley has been here before, caught between the financial needs of the Roman Catholic Church and the fury of alleged sex abuse victims and other parishioners. This time, a satisfying resolution may be tougher to find.Less than three years ago, O'Malley personally oversaw negotiations in what was then the largest legal settlement of its kind: an $85 million deal to settle more than 500 lawsuits claiming sex abuse by priests. Afterward, both sides said it was time for the healing to begin.

But recent news that church lawyers were negotiating with 200 more alleged victims has brought back much of the bitterness.

Attorneys dismissed as "demeaning" the archdiocese's proposal for an average settlement of $75,000 for the new plaintiffs. They said these victims were being treated differently than those who came forward at the height of the sex abuse scandal, who received an average settlement of $155,000.

Church officials say they can't afford to pay more because the earlier settlement and declining attendance have left the archdiocese in a tough financial situation. And their lawyers say the other side has compromised the negotiations by taking their gripes to the media.

For O'Malley, it's been one crisis after another since he took the reins of the nation's fourth-largest Catholic diocese in July 2003.

The raging sex abuse scandal already had forced the resignation of his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, and reverberated throughout the church. But within two months of his installation, O'Malley settled with 554 people who had been molested by priests, winning widespread praise from victims for his compassion and willingness to acknowledge the grave mistakes made by the church.

The good will began to erode months later, when he announced the closing of more than 80 churches, a move that sparked angry protests by parishioners and around-the-clock sit-ins.

Now, as church lawyers try to resolve the latest abuse claims, O'Malley finds himself with a new set of challenges.

Lawyers for the new plaintiffs have sharply criticized the archdiocese for offering $7.5 million to approximately 100 alleged victims. The proposal would give settlements ranging from $5,000 to $200,000, with $75,000 as the average; compared to the range of $80,000 to $300,000, with an average of about $155,000, for the victims who settled in 2003.

Under a proposed arbitration process, some of the alleged victims would also be subject to cross-examination by church lawyers, something victims did not have to endure during the 2003 settlement negotiations.

O'Malley did not respond to requests for an interview about the negotiations.

Victims and their advocates say that, unlike the first settlement, when the archbishop met face-to-face with victims and had a personal hand in the settlement negotiations, he has left it to the church's lawyers this time "He's not been able to demonstrate the kind of imaginative leadership that we saw with the first round of cases," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a reform group founded after the clergy scandal first erupted in 2002. "Where is the Christian outreach, this kind of compassion that he's supposed to manifest?"

Carmen Durso, an attorney who represents 33 of the new plaintiffs, said the archdiocese has signaled through its proposal to cross-examine victims that it does not believe all of the current claims.

"They've simply decided they just think of these people as liars," Durso said.

Gary Bergeron, one of those who agreed to the 2003 settlement, said O'Malley appears to be making the same mistake Cardinal Law did -- dealing with victims through attorneys.

Law became the lightning rod for criticism from alleged victims, parishioners and even fellow priests after a judge unsealed court records showing he allowed priests with confirmed histories of molesting children to continue working in parishes. Known for his regal bearing and rich lifestyle, Law was seen by many as aloof, and he resigned in December 2002 at the height of the scandal.

O'Malley, by contrast, seemed humble. He wore the robe and sandals of his monastic order, the Capuchins, and he eschewed the mansion where previous archbishops lived, favoring a more austere existence in the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

He also had credentials when it came to handling abusive priests. As bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Fall River, he led the church through a scandal in the early 1990s involving pedophile priest James Porter, who was convicted of molesting dozens of children.

Bergeron, who was molested by a priest in the 1970s in Lowell, said he participated in at least a half-dozen meetings where O'Malley himself was present during the 2003 settlement negotiations, including two one-on-one sessions.

"There is nothing the man could have done that would have made me whole again," Bergeron said, "but what he did do was he engaged me with a level of integrity that I had not had with his predecessor."

Officials from the archdiocese would not talk about the current negotiations, but insisted in a prepared statement that the lower settlement figure this time around was due to the archdiocese's financial troubles, and not an effort to belittle the plaintiffs.

"The dollar amounts, while not as high as in the global settlement, reflect the present financial capability of the Archdiocese and recognize its deteriorated financial condition since the time of the last settlement," church officials said in the statement.

But the victims have little sympathy for the archdiocese's claims of financial woes and say O'Malley should step in and come up with more money.

"I think right now he's just a puppet," said William Garrity, a new plaintiff who says he was molested by his parish priest 34 years ago when he was a 12-year-old altar boy.

"The attorneys -- they are deciding it. I don't think they're running anything by his desk."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.