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Jan 6, 2004 |

About 800 people across California took advantage of a 12-month window last year to file molestation lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church.

Negotiations over the claims, they said, could yield one of the largest clergy abuse settlements in the nation's history.

The initial estimate came as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared Tuesday to announce how well its 195 dioceses have followed the church's 2-year-old policy created in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal.

About 500 of the cases are against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, while another 175 are spread among the dioceses of Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino, said an attorney whose is handling filings for 320 plaintiffs in Southern California.

The attorney said a settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles could surpass the Archdiocese of Boston's $85 million settlement with alleged victims, currently the largest in the country.

In Northern California, about another 125 cases were filed.

In some cases, the dioceses aren't yet sure of the total number of lawsuits they face. At least one diocese was still being served with new lawsuits Monday, five days after the official filing deadline of Dec. 31. The Diocese of Monterey sent paralegals to several counties Monday to try to tally the lawsuits against it, a spokesman said.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was still sorting through its cases, officials said.

"But we have a great desire to deal with these claims in mediation and try to reach a settlement for all claims involved," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese.

The flood of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits.

Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthday or three years after a time they could show they discovered they had emotional problems linked to molestation.

Tamberg said many of the claims of sexual molestation brought against the church during the past year are "exaggerated,and some are demonstrably false."

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