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Abuse Deal With Archdiocese OK'd

Aug 2, 2003 | The Courier-Journal

A Jefferson Circuit Court judge yesterday approved a $25.7 million settlement between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville and 243 victims of sexual abuse, praising the deal for giving "vindication" to victims.

Judge James M. Shake also approved a controversial plan to award attorneys' fees of 40 percent in most plaintiffs' cases for the lead lawyers, whom he praised for "phenomenal" and "compassionate" legal work.

Shake's approval releases the archdiocese and a Southern Indiana-based order of Franciscans, which was a co-defendant in some cases, from all liability in the abuse cases. The church groups settled with the victims June 10.

For the church, it ends the major part of a legal battle that began in April 2002 with the first of more than 250 lawsuits alleging a church cover-up of abuse by dozens of priests and others associated with the church over the past five decades. Ten other lawsuits are pending, and the archdiocese is preparing further budget reductions beyond a $2 million cut it made earlier this year. That cut resulted in 34 job cuts.

In his order, Shake praised the settlement as benefiting not only those involved in the lawsuits but also the community as a whole.

"The value herein is not merely financial," Shake wrote in his order. Noting that the settlement agreement requires church officials to no longer refer to the plaintiffs as "alleged" victims, Shake said, "This simple statement has provided validation and vindication to persons who have lived the greater part of their lives in fear and doubt. It is a benefit of incalculable value."

Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who has been criticized for allowing some abusive priests to continue in ministry in the past, applauded Shake's ruling in a statement.

"The Church must respond to victims of sexual abuse with justice and compassion," he said. "I believe that we can move forward now that the settlement has been approved, but there is much hard work that needs to be done to heal the wounds in victims' lives and in the life of the Church."

"This is truly why I chose to be a trial lawyer and represent only victims," he said. "The acknowledgment by Judge Shake that the restoration of the victims' dignity had incalculable value was as important for me to hear as the lawyer as it was for these victims."

Earlier this week, 10 plaintiffs objected to parts of the settlement and the attorneys' fees, while other plaintiffs supported them.

OPPONENTS SAID they should have had the final say in approving the settlement, and they wanted more information about how much the archdiocese had in assets. Nine of them later withdrew objections to the settlement but not the lawyers' fees.

Shake said in his ruling that the benefits of the settlement outweighed the risks to the plaintiffs if they took their cases to trial. Shake said the plaintiffs risked having their cases thrown out under Kentucky's statute of limitations because, in most cases, they were filed decades after the abuse.

Further, he said, in some cases plaintiffs lacked crucial evidence of whether the church knew about or covered up the abuse. Even in cases where perpetrators were convicted, "psychological damages are among the most difficult to prove," Shake said.

Adding the "staggering" amount of additional lawyers' costs in a trial, "there can be no question that the relief offered by the proposed settlement far outweighs the likelihood of success in many if not most of the cases viewed individually," Shake said.

Michael Turner, the first to file a lawsuit against the archdiocese last year, said news of Shake's ruling was "fabulous."

"I hate that (there was a dispute) over money; that just really bothered me," said Turner, who was abused by retired priest Louis Miller, who is now in prison on a child sexual-abuse conviction. "But I am absolutely thrilled that this is over."

William Handelman, a plaintiff who objected to the fees and settlement, said he was disappointed in Shake's ruling but accepted it.

"I guess we'll just have to live with it and get on with life, but that's a lot of money for one year's work," he said, referring to McMurry's compensation.

Kelly said every Catholic household would receive a report on the financial impact of the settlement as well as an update on how the archdiocese is implementing a nationwide policy on sexual abuse adopted by bishops last year.

"Healing takes time," Kelly said. "In the coming years, our priority will be healing the wounds of this abuse for sex abuse victims as well as for the all of the Catholic people who have been hurt by this betrayal of their trust."

But advocates for abuse victims said they will continue to advocate for changes in the church.

Joetta Blair, one of five victims of the late Franciscan priest Kevin Cole, renewed calls for Kelly to resign, noting that abusers, such as Miller, were allowed to stay in ministry.

"If he couldn't do it these last 20 years, how can we be sure he will do it right these next three last years?" she said. Kelly has said he will stay in office until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75 in three years.

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