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Archbishop Acts Quickly On Sex Suits

Aug 10, 2003 | AP

Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley arrived last month in Boston amid swelling public anger over the Catholic Church's inability to resolve hundreds of clergy abuse claims.

But behind closed doors, the Capuchin Franciscan friar quickly had a calming influence on the rancorous settlement talks.

Friday, mediator Paul Finn stood before dozens of attorneys for victims, said he was pleased they had come and gave each attorney a two-page outline of a $55 million offer from the church to settle more than 540 lawsuits.

O'Malley, installed as archbishop on July 30, wasted no time in changing the bumpy course the lawsuits had taken, reopening communication that had all but collapsed and making clear his desire to settle, according to attorneys involved in the talks.

Celebrating Mass on Saturday at the Church of St. Michael in Lowell, where the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham allegedly molested boys, O'Malley referred to the abuse crisis.

"I'm aware of how much this community has suffered because of clerical sexual abuse," he said, urging parishioners to pray for "the people who have suffered most, for victims and their families."

His predecessors, Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace in December, and interim archdiocese leader Bishop Richard Lennon talked about settling the lawsuits but never seemed to gain the trust of alleged victims and their lawyers.

"Is there a difference? Absolutely. Is there enough of a difference for us to come to a final resolution? It's too soon to tell," said attorney Carmen Durso, who is part of a five-member steering committee formed Friday to respond to the settlement offer.

The settlement would resolve the claims of men and women who said they were abused as children by about 140 clergy. A recent report by the state attorney general estimated that more than 1,000 children were abused over six decades.

If accepted, it would be the largest lump settlement for clergy abuse since the scandal broke in early 2002. In June, the archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who said they were abused.

Last year, the Boston archdiocese reached a $10 million settlement with 86 victims of a single priest whose offenses helped set off the scandal. A previous $20 million to $30 million settlement with those victims fell apart when the church said it couldn't pay.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the latest proposed settlement, saying both sides had agreed to not publicly discuss negotiations.

As recently as June, settlement seemed remote.

"It wasn't looking good. It was getting more and more messy, and we didn't see any end in sight," Newman said. "We were contemplating the possibility of 50 or 60 trials in the next year. It was nightmarish."

Soon after O'Malley's appointment was announced last month, he brought in Thomas Hannigan, the attorney who in the early 1990s helped O'Malley settle abuse cases in the Fall River Diocese, where the Rev. James Porter was accused of molesting 99 children in the 1950s and 1960s. Porter pleaded guilty in 1993 to molesting 28 children and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.

The tenor immediately changed, according to Newman. He said O'Malley even met with victims.

The turning point, Newman said, came before O'Malley's installation, when he quashed the church's plan to question an alleged victim's therapist who had been promised confidentiality.

"It showed that he actually had control over this bucking bronco," Newman said. "That was one of the key decisions that indicated to me that he'd be able to exert control over what had become an uncontrollable piece of litigation."

According to a document obtained by the Associated Press, the settlement money would be divided among the victims by an outside mediator based on the type and severity of abuse. The church would also give up any defenses such as the statute of limitations or the charitable immunity for nonprofit entities.

Plaintiffs have 30 days to accept the offer. It would go into effect only if at least 95 percent of the claimants accept it.

It was unclear where the archdiocese would get the money to pay any settlement. Insurance is expected to cover some of the cost. Church officials have repeatedly said they will not use money donated by parishioners to settle claims.

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