|Diocese May Use Other Cases As Benchmarks As Talks Begin
By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 17, 2010
When the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and attorneys for 15 victims sexually abused by priests as children sit down with a mediator in Chicago beginning Monday, chances are they'll be mindful of what's come before:
• $37 million awarded to 156 victims in the Diocese of Davenport in 2007.
• $13 million for victims in Chicago the following year.
• $17 million paid by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2006 to 10 California victims.
While those numbers are likely to serve as a kind of benchmark, one thing is clear from these and other settlements across the country: It's not just about the money.
"It's interesting to look at the non-monetary terms," which have included such provisions as personal apologies, the public release of documents, and bans on bishops using the word "alleged" in reference to victims, said Terry McKiernan, founder of Boston-based BishopAccountability.org, which posts documents related to sex abuse cases on its website.
"They offer a window into the concerns of victims that go beyond the money," he said.
Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki announced Tuesday that he had initiated settlement talks with attorneys for the victims, whose cases are pending in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. All 15 accuse the archdiocese of defrauding them by moving offender priests from parish to parish without telling families about their sex abuse histories.
The pending cases include victims of the now defrocked priest Franklyn Becker, whose history of inappropriate sexual activity dated to his days in the seminary, and the late Father Lawrence Murphy, who is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys. The church is not disputing that the victims were abused.
If successful, it would be the Milwaukee archdiocese's second court-related settlement in four years. In 2006, it paid $17 million - half of that covered by insurance - to settle claims by 10 victims in California, where two notorious Milwaukee priests - Becker and Siegfried Widera - had transferred.
Monday's meeting with mediator Stuart Nudelman, a retired Cook County judge who played a role in both the Chicago and Davenport settlements, will essentially set the ground rules for the talks, both sides said. A settlement, if it comes at all, could take days or weeks.
Money available unclear
The archdiocese declined to discuss how much it has to work with in terms of a financial settlement.
"That's what the mediation is for," said Listecki Chief of Staff Jerry Topczewski.
However, he suggested that resources may be limited primarily to the archdiocese's unrestricted operating assets - $3.8 million in the 2008-'09 fiscal year, the latest figures available - and a portfolio of property, which the diocese has valued but would not make public. It includes the Cousins Center, which already is on the market and has been valued as high as $8 million.
Plaintiffs attorney Jeff Anderson said dioceses around the country have routinely excluded or undervalued assets brought to mediation, and that he would not even discuss financials in the talks until the archdiocese showed it was serious about settling.
"If it appears it's sincere that it wants to do the right thing, including coming clean about the treatment of these folks, then each claim will be evaluated individually," he said.
A number of factors play into the success of mediation, legal experts say, including the strength of the cases, the value of the financial offer, the ability of the parties to set aside their suspicions about the other side, and the style of the mediator.
"Is this person someone who will crack heads and do everything possible to get it settled, or more of a laid back facilitator?" said Portland, Ore., attorney Kelly Clark who has represented clergy sex abuse victims around the country. "The former is a lot more effective," he said. "It's a lot less pleasant, but it gets the job done."
Awards vary greatly
Since 1984, the Catholic Church has paid more than $2.4 billion to 5,000 sex abuse victims, or an average of about $274,000 a person after attorneys' fees, according to BishopAccountability.org, which has compiled a partial list of settlements and jury awards based on public documents and news accounts. But awards vary greatly, according to the site, from as little as $15,000 per victim after legal fees to more than $3 million.
Failure to reach a settlement has, in the past, sent churches back to court and bankruptcy, said Nick Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Many have opted for voluntary mediation rather than take on the costs and uncertainty of trial.
"Juries tend to be very sympathetic to victims and . . . very tough on the church for not being true to its own values," said Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer, who sat on the U.S. Conference of Bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth until 2005.
The Milwaukee lawsuits have been on hold for more than a year pending a decision by an appellate court on whether the archdiocese's insurers are liable for any judgments. A lower court ruled that they are not. The decision by the appeals court, expected soon, would restart those trials.
Anderson sees the archdiocese's timing as a way to resolve the claims before trials resume and more damaging documents and depositions are made public through the discovery process. Topczewski denied that, saying many of the cases have already been well documented and that it makes no sense to deplete resources at trial that can be used to benefit victims.
"We've always tried to reach a resolution of cases before the costs and delays of trial," he said. "The question becomes do you take away resources from money that could be used to provide a financial resolution?"
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