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Church To Negotiate Abuse Suits

L.A., Orange Dioceses And Alleged Victims Will Try To Settle More Than 100 Claims Out of Court

Jan 1, 2003 | Los Angeles Times Roman Catholic Church officials and attorneys for alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests in Los Angeles and Orange counties agreed Tuesday to negotiate more than 100 claims rather than engage in immediate lawsuits under a controversial state law that takes effect today.

Attorneys for both sides and a Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman confirmed the broad outlines of the mediation effort on new cases that would be covered under the state law, which lifts the statute of limitations on molestation lawsuits for one year.

Word that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange would seek out-of-court settlements rather than engage in a bruising and public battle in court appears to resemble efforts underway in Boston, where the sexual abuse scandal erupted last January and from where it spread across the nation to become the worst crisis ever to face the U.S. church.

In Boston the archdiocese has earmarked church property it may have to sell to pay settlements not covered by an estimated $90 million in insurance funds.

Under terms of the Los Angeles and Orange mediation, the church and victims would have about 90 days to reach out-of-court settlements, although the mediation could go on longer if there was progress, a church attorney said. During this "standstill" period, no new cases would be filed and no action would be taken on cases already pending, according to Allan Parachini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Although it is uncertain how much money potential settlements could cost the two Catholic dioceses, one knowledgeable church official said insurance payouts would probably cover most of the costs. He said the archdiocese's "best guess" is that $150 million in insurance money is potentially available.Mediation, first broached during a Christmas Eve meeting with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman, could offer the church the possibility of quickly putting the protracted sexual abuse scandal behind it with limited public exposure and court costs, while offering victims the possibility of faster and larger settlements.

On Tuesday, attorneys for both sides participated in a conference call in which the agreement was reached to try to work out a settlement without the filing of new lawsuits, according to Katherine Kay Freberg of Irvine, who represents nearly 80 alleged victims of sexual abuse.

For its part, the church said it would set aside its threatened challenge to the new law. Church officials have said the law unfairly targets it for old sins while forcing it to defend claims involving dead witnesses, discarded files and faded memories.

The law also covers any other institution or church found to have allowed its employees to molest minors, but the Catholic Church said it was the measure's real target.

The fact that the Los Angeles Archdiocese, led by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, will not press its challenge to the law may persuade other Catholic bishops in the state to hold their fire as well, a church official said Tuesday. "This is overwhelmingly our problem. Other bishops are likely to hold back," he said, speaking on condition that his name be withheld.

The official also confirmed reports that the church would turn over confidential personnel files of accused priests to allow plaintiffs' attorneys to begin "informal discovery" of the facts surrounding the allegations.

Besides Freberg, attorneys involved in the mediation discussions have included John Manly of Costa Mesa and Ray Boucher of Beverly Hills. Between them, they represent a large percentage of several hundred cases that Mahony has said he expected to be filed under the new law.

Not all attorneys representing long-ago victims have agreed to mediation.

"I think it's way too early to talk about mediation, because we don't know about the church's insurance policies, its assets or the number of cases," Boucher said.

Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, who was instrumental in getting the statute of limitations lifted, said he would discuss the matter with other attorneys who have not yet joined in the negotiations. "I don't know if we're open to this," said Drivon.

Attorneys involved in the discussions said Tuesday that the court has limited what they can say. Freberg said there was a "gag order." An attorney for the L.A. Archdiocese said he could confirm only that mediation now appeared to be a "done deal."

Court spokesman Parachini said, "There is nothing sinister or secret about these discussions."

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the L.A. Archdiocese, said Tuesday that the church would prefer out-of-court settlements to legal battles in open court.

"Mediation is always better than conflict," Tamberg said. "The archdiocese believes that legitimate victims of sexual abuse by clergy deserve consideration of compensation for their suffering. This was true prior to the passage" of the new law "and it is true today."

Mary Grant, Southwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it remained to be seen whether the church would negotiate in good faith or use the mediation efforts to stall the filing of civil suits as the one-year period for such action ticks down. A church attorney said it was unlikely that the victims' attorneys would permit stalling tactics.

"I think victims have always wanted the church to do the right thing," Grant said. "I'm sure most survivors would hope that this is a step that may be in the right direction. But we've been told things by bishops before that haven't been true. I think most survivors will be cautiously optimistic."

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