Church Certifies 80 Percent Threshold Reached in Abuse Lawsuits

Associated Press State & Local Wire
October 20, 2003

More than 80 percent of the 552 plaintiffs in clergy sex abuse lawsuits have signed on to an $85 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston, activating the largest such settlement ever in a U.S. diocese.

The archdiocese and its attorney, Thomas Hannigan Jr., said they had received signed agreements from more than 442 alleged victims, putting the number over the 80 percent required for the agreement to take effect.

The threshold was reached three days before Thursday's deadline, set in September when the archdiocese agreed to the landmark settlement with the alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 120 plaintiffs, submitted 114 signed agreements to mediators on Monday afternoon to reach the threshold.

Hannigan would not say exactly how many people had turned in their agreements. But lawyers for the victims said they expect between 90 percent and 98 percent of the victims to sign on to the settlement by Thursday's deadline.

Each victim will tell his or her story to a mediator who will decide the amount they receive within the range of $80,000 to $300,000 set by the agreement. The amounts will be based on the type, severity and duration of the abuse, as well as the suffering it caused. Arbitration hearings were scheduled to begin Tuesday, Garabedian said.

Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose firm represents about half of the 552 victims, said more than 200 of his clients had signed their agreements. He said those who opted not to sign the agreement are now planning to take their cases to trial.

"There are people that had viable cases to try, and we felt as though they could do better at trial," MacLeish said. "It's their decision to make. This turned out to be something that worked for a large number of victims."

The archdiocese has been at the center of a national scandal for nearly two years following the release of church documents revealing that archdiocese leaders shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish instead of removing them from ministry.

The $85 million agreement was reached in September, less than two months after Archbishop Sean O'Malley took over as leader of the nation's fourth-largest diocese. His predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, resigned as archbishop in December after a firestorm of criticism over his handling of the crisis.

The settlement is the largest-known payout by a U.S. diocese to settle molestation charges.

O'Malley, who was in Rome Monday to attend the beatification ceremonies for Mother Teresa, said he was pleased that more than 80 percent of the victims had agreed to the settlement, but also hoped additional victims would sign on by Thursday's deadline.

"I realize, of course, that much work remains to be done," O'Malley said in a written statement. "The Archdiocese of Boston remains committed to doing everything we possibly can to work to bring about healing, reconciliation and peace for those who have been abused and for all who have been affected by this terrible scandal."

Alexa MacPherson, 28, who says she was molested by the Rev. Peter Kanchong at St. Margaret's church in Dorchester beginning when she was 3 years old and continuing through age 9, said she chose to sign the agreement so she could get on with her life.

"This will be something that will always be with me, but I don't want it to run my life any longer," she said. "I've carried a lot of guilt and pain, and been ashamed and embarrassed. It's time for that to be put aside."

Gary Bergeron, 41, who says he was abused by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham at the Church of St. Michael in Lowell in the 1970s, said he wrestled with the decision, but finally decided last week to accept the settlement.

"The bottom line is, as of right now, the only other option is to go to court, and I'm not sure how that's going to help me," Bergeron said.

Bergeron said that for him and some other victims, the settlement is at least a recognition that they were wronged by the archdiocese.

"I think this is a clear indication that the archdiocese is, to some degree, recognizing what's gone on over the last 30 years in my life, and they're offering a symbolic number as a result of that," he said.

Alleged victim John King, 40, says he was abused by the Rev. Ronald Paquin, who is currently serving a 12- to 15-year prison sentence for raping a 12-year-old altar boy. He said the agreement is a form of accountability for the archdiocese.

"I wanted acknowledgement of what happened. I wanted some admission," said King, who said he has friends who were abused by priests, but still are afraid to come forward. "I hope someday they realize it's not our fault."


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