Los Angeles Archdiocese to settle 45 claims of sex abuse

Awards of $1.3 million per person would be among the highest

December 02, 2006|By John Spano and Jean Guccione | John Spano and Jean Guccione,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced yesterday that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $60 million to settle 45 claims of clergy sexual abuse.

But the lead lawyer for the alleged victims said the final details of the settlement are still being negotiated.

"This is very important for us," Mahony said. "This is a major effort at healing and reconciliation."

Mahony said the settlement would not adversely affect parish functions or ministries. "We set aside last year $40 million for this settlement. While it is painful, no parishes are affected," he said.

The settlement would be the first by the archdiocese and would represent 8 percent of the 562 cases brought by people who claimed the archdiocese failed to protect them from pedophile priests.

The average award to each claimant - $1.3 million - would be among the highest of the major sex abuse settlements against the Catholic Church in the United States.

Mahony said there will be "more pain" as the rest of the claims are settled. "We will be looking at some lessening of our services and ministries."

Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said both sides are negotiating whether and how confidential church documents on priests accused of sexual misconduct would be released to the public.

"If we are able to put the finishing touches on this deal, then it will be a historic day. Forty-five victims have been waiting a year to get these cases resolved, and finally it looks like we are on the verge of doing so," Boucher said.

The deal would include claims from the past 20 years, during which Mahony was the spiritual head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese.

The 45 cases involve those classified as underinsured or uninsured. In 1986, a year after Mahony took office, liability insurance coverage ended for the church.

Mahony said he offered his personal apologies to victims of abuse during weekly meetings this fall at the civil courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, a block from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

"For me personally, it's been a great time to be in this part of the journey of these people," he said. "Not everyone is at a point of forgiveness on their part, but everyone needs an apology from me."

Barbara Dorris, a spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, however, warned that "this settlement should be seen as what it is: a purely business decision by Mahony, and nothing more."

"Cardinal Mahony's goal has always been self-preservation. He desperately wants to avoid trials at which horrific and shocking secrets about the church cover-ups of child sexual abuse will be exposed. This settlement doesn't signal or suggest any change whatsoever in Mahony's M.O."

Donald Steier, an attorney representing 11 accused priests in the settlement, said he was "pleased that these cases are moving forward toward resolution."

"Everybody wants to put these matters behind them and move on with their lives," he said. "Our only disappointment is that the parties agreed to a global settlement, which did not take into account the circumstances of each individual case."

The Los Angeles lawsuits were filed in 2003 under legislation that lifted the California statute of limitations for one year. The law was inspired by disclosures that Cardinal Bernard Law and others in the Boston Archdiocese allowed priests accused of molestation to continue to have access to children.

Law was forced to resign after the court-ordered release of thousands of pages of internal documents detailing his role. Mahony has waged a dogged court fight to keep confidential personnel documents out of the hands of plaintiffs as well as prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against two of the priests. The courts have repeatedly ruled against Mahony, who was forced by the court to turn over the files of two accused priests.

As part of today's proposed agreement, the parties would agree to use retired California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli to decide which documents will be released.

The cardinal has insisted that releasing the files would violate the privacy rights of priests and interfere with protected church business.

Many advocates for victims say they believe that the church has curbed abuse. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Bishops adopted a "zero tolerance" stance that ended the practice of sending abusive priests to therapists before returning them to parish duties. Mahony has appointed a board of lay people to monitor compliance.

John Spano and Jean Guccione write for the Los Angeles Times.

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