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Church Settles With Alleged Abuse Victims

Diocese of Manchester To Pay $5 Million

Nov 27, 2002 | Conconrd Monitor

Sixty-two people who claimed they were abused by priests and employees of the Diocese of Manchester between the 1950s and 1980s settled their lawsuits against the diocese yesterday for just over $5 million.

It's the second settlement the church has announced since the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in New Hampshire in February. In October, attorney Chuck Douglas settled lawsuits on behalf of 16 victims for $950,000.

Neither church officials nor the victims' attorney, Peter Hutchins, would discuss individual awards in yesterday's settlement. Hutchins told the Associated Press that no one victim will receive more than $500,000 and that the median settlement was $41,250.

Hutchins will receive about one-third of the settlement to cover his fees and nearly $120,000 in expenses he incurred. Hutchins praised the diocese yesterday for its cooperation and sensitivity toward his clients, who wanted to remain anonymous.

"We achieved what I hoped New Hampshire could," Hutchins said. "We wanted to try to avoid damage a trial would do to our clients, their kids and the majority of the people in the Diocese of (Manchester) who are totally innocent of any wrongdoing."

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, who handles sexual abuse complaints for the diocese, declined to discuss the nature of the allegations yesterday or where the alleged abuse had occurred. He said the settlements are about pastoral care, not legal wrangling.

"We are grateful these 62 individuals had the courage to come forward," Arsenault said. "The healing process can now begin."

Yesterday's settlement involved 28 priests, one member of a religious institute and two lay persons employed by the diocese. All but five of the victims are men, and all the alleged abuse involved physical contact, Hutchins said.

All but two of the alleged abusers were named; the victims of one priests and one employee did not want to publicly identify their abuser.

In his settlement, Douglas said he required the diocese to give police authorities the names of all accused priests. Hutchins said he did not request that, and church officials do not report priests to law enforcement unless the victim is still a child.

And Hutchins said future settlements won't get the same media attention yesterday's did because the settlement process has become so easy, he and the church's attorney can now resolve claims individually, within days and with little negotiation.

That concerned Douglas. Publicizing the names of abusive priests helps other victims deal with their own pain, he said.

"Part of the process is letting those who have not come forward know they are not alone," he said.

Plus, the church has been criticized for not better policing its abusive priests in the past. Hutchins dismissed that concern yesterday.

"You have to have a little trust left in the world or it's a pretty miserable place," he said. He said he believed the diocese had changed its practices and now responds to claims quickly and appropriately.

Arsenault refused to say yesterday whether the church had acknowledged the validity of the claims in Hutchins's lawsuits as part of the settlement, telling reporters to read his press release. Arsenault's press release hedged on accepting responsibility, referring to victims as people who had "reported" abuse.

A letter from Bishop John McCormack to the victims reportedly expressed sorrow and an offer to meet individually with victims. But there was no indication in the press release that McCormack had accepted responsibility. Reporters requested a copy of McCormack's letter but were not given one.

Most of the allegations in yesterday's settlement stemmed from the 1970s and 1960s. A dozen lawsuits alleged abuse from either the 1980s or the 1950s.

It was not clear from the information provided yesterday when each priest or employee was accused, but only four priests were still in active ministry when the diocese learned of the allegations, church officials said.

One of those was Father Aime Boisselle, who resigned from Sacred Heart Church in Concord in May after being accused of past abuse.

Hutchins said he did not know whether the church had removed the accused priests immediately upon learning of the abuse. He said his concern was settling the lawsuits without a trial and that he did not go deep enough into the history to discern how the church had handled each individual allegation.

The settlement totals $5,074,000. Arsenault said that money will come from three sources: $2 million from the diocese's insurance carriers, $900,000 from reserves in the diocese's insurance fund, and $2.1 million from savings of the church, which is available for pastoral needs.

Arsenault said none of the money comes from parish, school or the Catholic Charities coffers. He said the money will come from investment returns and unrestricted gifts to the bishop. However, each parish does contribute a portion of its collections for buying diocesan insurance.

Arsenault could not say how the nearly $5 million would have been used had it not been spent to settle abuse claims against priests and employees. "It's like anyone's savings account," he said. "Who knows what you might do with your savings."

He said the money was well-spent if it helps victims to heal. Hutchins agreed and said the Diocese of Manchester has taken the lead in resolving clergy sexual abuse. "You can't really ensure the future is going to be better unless you've tried your best to fix the past."

The church still faces several more lawsuits.

Douglas said yesterday that he already has eight new cases he is preparing to bring against the church. Hutchins said he too is still getting calls. And attorney Mark Abramson is preparing to go to trial on behalf of nearly 60 alleged victims.

Hutchins had initially hoped to combine all victims' complaints against the diocese into a single class-action lawsuit. In court records, he estimated the church could settle all its claims for about $30 million. That idea faltered after Douglas and Abramson decided to pursue their cases individually.

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