Diocese to Pay $6.5 Million

By Nancy Meersman
Union Leader
May 23, 2003

The Manchester Diocese will pay $6.5 million to settle the lawsuits of 61 people who accused the church of looking the other way when they were being sexually preyed upon as children by Catholic priests.

The payments will be made over a three-year period starting at the end of this year, the church said yesterday.

The settlement with attorney Mark Abramson's clients brings the total number of sex-abuse cases settled in the past 11 months to 176. The church said the total payout in that time has reached $15,450,000.

The diocese believes all but a handful of the sex-abuse cases are now resolved.

The three-year payout, the diocese said, is "acceptable to the complainants and also allows for the stabilization of the financial condition of the diocese."

Abramson's clients were the last large group to settle. He said the compensation per victim is about 30 percent higher than in earlier settlements. The highest compensation to a single victim is $405,000, he said.

"Compensation is a nice thing, but it's not going to make the pain go away," the Manchester attorney said. "Some of the victims have been living with this for 20 to 40 years.

"The thing that has helped them most is public awareness of what they have been through and the fact that some priests have been given the boot. And there have been some changes in the church."

The abuses stretch back 40 to 50 years. Twenty-three priests were named as having harmed children. The diocese said all of them have either been stripped of their authority to perform as priests or have died.

Bishop John B. McCormack said the church was grateful to be able to help people who reported sexual abuse.

"I hope this response by the church will help them heal from the wounds of abuse, and I pray that they will continue to know the healing power of Christ's love through our efforts," the bishop said in a statement. "I am personally sorry for the hurt they have experienced, and I have written to each person expressing my deep regret, an apology on behalf of the church and my willingness to assist them personally in any way that is helpful."

Typically, plaintiffs' law firms are paid one-third of a settlement, which would translate to a $2 million-plus payday for Abramson, Reis, Brown and Dugan. Abramson said the total fee to his firm would be less than one-third because some of the cases were referred by other lawyers who also would be paid from the settlement.

Patrick McGee, spokesman for the diocese, said some of the latest group to be paid were covered under insurance plans. Some, he said, will be paid out of the church's insurance fund, which covers deductibles and pays insurance premiums. He said the parishes pay just under 1 percent of their assessable income into the insurance fund.

"No parish, school or other institutional funds, including N.H. Catholic Charities resources, have been used in this or any other civil settlement," the church's statement said.

Last year, Abramson said he would not settle the cases "in the dark" but would dig out all the matters the church was allegedly trying to hide. He said church officials only agreed to a better settlement in these cases because they had been forced to turn over incriminating documents and the priests' confidential personnel files.

"We also obtained some rulings that were very damaging to them from Hillsborough Superior Court judges that made them very concerned about the way the litigation was going for them," Abramson said. "And that's why they ultimately paid us, I think, on average 30 percent more."

He said most -- but not all -- of his objectives in the litigation were accomplished.

The public became aware of the massive scale of abuse against children, he said. The revelations about sexual abuse by priests also prompted the Attorney General's Office to investigate the Manchester Diocese. State prosecutors earlier this year issued a 9,000-page public report on crimes against children by Catholic priests and the church's role in allegedly hiding the facts from the public.

"What I think we were not able to accomplish was removing the hierarchy in the diocese who were responsible for the abuse of many kids," Abramson said. "I am personally calling for the bishop to resign."

McGee said the bishop is blameless in any of the New Hampshire cases, as all pre-dated his arrival in the mid-1990s.

Bishop McCormack, who handled many sexual abuse cases as a top aide to former Cardinal Bernard Law, is a defendant in lawsuits by alleged abuse victims in Massachusetts.

McGee said, in contrast to other dioceses, Manchester has quickly responded to claims. The cases were amicably settled, he said, because McCormack wanted the victims to be able to go on with their lives. He dealt with the complaints "as a pastoral problem and not a legal problem."

The church said it sought to deal individually with those who allege they were harmed to help them financially and help them heal spiritually.

"They offered my clients an opportunity to meet with them, but not one of my clients had any interest whatever in meeting with them," Abramson said. "This is just baloney about their wanting to take care of the victims because they defended the cases vigorously and they tried in court to force the clients to identify themselves so they would either withdraw or settle for small amounts."


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