$85m Church Settlement OK'd
By Paul A. Long
February 1, 2006
A judge has approved the $85 million settlement reached between the Diocese of Covington and hundreds of people who say they were abused by priests or other diocesan employees over the past 50 years.
Senior Judge John Potter on Tuesday filed a 15-page opinion finding all parts of the settlement "fair, reasonable and adequate."
He said the attorneys and others involved laid out an agreement that covered all aspects of the case and treated the victims and the diocese fairly. While some details could have been tinkered with, Potter said, nothing would have produced "a markedly better result."
Both sides had asked Potter to approve the settlement, and both issued statements praising him for doing so. Stan Chesley, the lead attorney for those suing the diocese, called it "a landmark case and a landmark decision."
"We feel comfortable that we will be able to move forward expeditiously so as to make payments to the claimants and see to it that they receive fair compensation," Chesley said.
"We will distribute claim forms as soon as the court has approved them. We hope that the claimants will file their forms as soon as possible so that we can move the process forward. We stand ready, willing and able to assist the court and the claimants in any way possible."
A statement from the diocese said the settlement has the full support of Bishop Roger Foys.
"We believe that this class settlement can promote healing both for the many victims who were abused and for the Diocese itself," the statement said.
Potter said he would remain active in overseeing the case "to supervise and implement the settlement."
Potter's approval came in the first class-action case in the United States against a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church's worldwide sex-abuse scandal. The suit alleged a more than 50-year cover-up of sexual abuse by priests against children and other parishioners.
The original settlement, announced in June 2005, was for $120 million, which would have made it the largest such award in the nation. But that figure overestimated the number of people abused, and further refinement cut the figure to $85 million.
Of that, the diocese will pay out $40 million, and its insurance companies will pay $45 million.
If the total amount needed in Covington exceeds $85 million, the payments will be "ratcheted down" to fit under that cap, Potter wrote.
At $85 million, it's still among the costliest settlements in the nation, although it's less than the record $100 million the Archdiocese of Orange County, Calif., agreed to pay in 2004. It's on par with what the Archdiocese of Boston settled for in 2003. Both of those organizations are far larger than the Covington diocese.
Overall, the cost to U.S. dioceses from sexual predators in the priesthood has climbed past $1 billion since 1950, according to tallies by American bishops and an Associated Press review of known settlements. Researchers commissioned by the bishops found more than 11,500 abuse claims against priests over those five decades.
For those who were abused in the Covington diocese, the settlement will provide cash payments of $5,000 to $450,000, for extraordinary cases, depending on the nature of the abuse. The agreement is expected to end a crisis that had been brewing for years since surfacing in 1993.
Before the class-action lawsuit, the diocese had settled 58 cases of sexual abuse, paying out more than $10 million to victims.
Potter said the payment schedule is fair and treats all claimants equally, regardless of whether their claims have a strong legal standing or not. While that may not be technically legal, it is fair and proper, he said.
He said both sides had valid reasons to settle the case rather than go through a lengthy, bitter trial. He also praised the diocese's desire to settle, which he said showed it was willing to go the extra mile to minister to those who had been abused.
In settling the class-action and other cases, Foys agreed to meet with anyone who was abused. He also made it a priority to treat the victims with kindness and try to heal them spiritually, said people on both sides.
The diocese said Foys "was personally involved in the settlement discussions and ... has met individually with more than a hundred victims to express his sorrow and offer them consolation."
"The class settlement that received final approval today represents several years of intense efforts on the part of the diocese to find an effective means of resolving all victims' claims and of reaching out to minister to the victims in their pain and distress. We believe that the class settlement allows the diocese to accomplish both these important goals."
Potter, who didn't mention Foys by name in his ruling, nonetheless said the diocese's attitude went a long way in settling the case - and was a factor in his decision to approve the settlement.
"Contrary to what may be the case in other dioceses, the court believes that this professed desire is genuine and played a significant role in the diocese's decisions," Potter said.
"These two factors applied equally to class members with 'weak' cases and well as to those with 'strong' claims. Therefore, the court finds that the legally unjustified egalitarian treatment of the class members was a factor in prompting the diocese to contribute as it did."
The Associated Press also contributed to this story.
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