L.A. Archdiocese set to negotiate

New Calif. law makes filing priest abuse suits easier

January 02, 2003|By Larry B. Stammer, Scott Martelle and Jean Guccione | Larry B. Stammer, Scott Martelle and Jean Guccione,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Roman Catholic Church officials and attorneys for alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests in California's Los Angeles and Orange counties agreed Tuesday to negotiate more than 100 claims rather than engage in immediate lawsuits under a state law that took effect yesterday.

Attorneys for both sides and a Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman confirmed the broad outlines of the mediation effort on new cases that would be covered under the state law, which lifts the statute of limitations on molestation lawsuits for one year.

Word that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange would seek out-of-court settlements rather than engage in a bruising public battle in court appears to resemble efforts under way in Boston, where the sexual-abuse scandal erupted in January last year and spread to become the worst crisis ever to face the U.S. Catholic Church.

In Boston, the archdiocese has earmarked church property it may have to sell to pay settlements not covered by an estimated $90 million in insurance.

Under terms of the Los Angeles and Orange mediation, the church and victims would have about 90 days to reach out-of-court settlements, although the mediation could continue longer if there was progress, a church attorney said.

During this "standstill" period, no new cases would be filed and no action would be taken on cases already pending, according to Allan Parachini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Although it is uncertain how much money potential settlements would cost the two Catholic dioceses, one knowledgeable church official said insurance payouts would likely cover most of the costs. He said the archdiocese's "best guess" is that $150 million in insurance money is potentially available. The ultimate payout would depend in part on the number of victims who agree to participate in mediation.

Mediation, first broached during a Christmas Eve meeting with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman, could offer the church the possibility of quickly putting the protracted sexual-abuse scandal behind it and saving court costs, while offering victims the possibility of faster and larger settlements.

Larry B. Stammer, Scott Martelle and Jean Guccione write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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