Judge Pushes for Resolution in Clerical Sex Abuse Cases

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
December 15, 2007

At the third hearing in as many months, Superior Court Judge Niejse Steinkruger worked with attorneys, insurance carriers and representatives for both the plaintiffs and defendants in the Alaska Catholic clergy sexual abuse cases all day Friday in accordance with her long-term plan to try to complete all cases by the end of 2008.

Before setting groups to various tasks, Steinkruger reminded participants that the proceedings were about more than dollars and cents — they were "about real people."

"This litigation is extremely painful for the people of the State of Alaska It's very painful for plaintiffs and members of the Catholic Church and their faith," she said.

"As you work today, remember Alaska is a very small state, smaller than most of the cities you flew in here from. I urge you both, plaintiffs and defendants, to think about that and remember that you are not doing this in San Francisco, or Texas or New York. You're doing this in a very small community which happens to be a state."

In the morning Steinkruger closeted lawyers for the victims and the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese and their insurance carriers in a room outside the Anchorage courtroom to negotiate 150 yet unsettled cases in hopes of a what she termed a "Christmas miracle" before the end of the year.

While in the courtroom, Steinkruger worked with attorneys representing plaintiffs and the Society of Jesus, Oregon Province and Alaska in developing an Alaska Catholic Clergy Abuse Victims Qualified Settlement Fund.

In mid-November the Jesuits settled with 113 Alaska claimants for $50 million, the largest single settlement against a Catholic religious order to date.

By day's end, details were worked out and all parties agreed on the appointment of James Klapps of JMW Settlements Inc. as administrator. A neutral third party, William Bettinelli, will be involved in reviewing individual claimant settlements from almost $30 million remaining after attorney fees are subtracted from the $50 million settlement — $1 million for legal fees, and $20 million for attorneys' 40 percent contingency fee.

By afternoon when no settlement was reached between plaintiffs and the diocese on 135 unsettled claims, the court completed the task of setting court dates for hearings and deadlines for depositions and expert reports.

The first court date is a Jan. 18 hearing in Fairbanks to set a date for evidentiary hearings in Bethel in September.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.


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