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Deal Reached in Franciscan Sex Abuse Suits

The Catholic Church tentatively agrees to pay more than $28million to 25 alleged victims. It may be a benchmark for L.A. Archdiocese cases

Mar 14, 2006 | Los Angeles Times

The Roman Catholic Church has tentatively agreed to pay more than $28 million to 25 people who say they were molested by Franciscan friars, attorneys involved in the negotiations said.

The deal marks the first settlement involving the Los Angeles Archdiocese since the sex-abuse scandal began four years ago. It comes as lawyers were preparing to try the first cases against the Franciscan Friars of California and the Los Angeles Archdiocese for failing to protect children from predatory priests.

"We are delighted to see the successful resolution of these cases involving the Franciscans and would hope it would stimulate comparable participation with other orders as well," said attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who represents Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in the clergy sex-abuse litigation. The archdiocese, slated to contribute less than $2 million, is still working with insurers to come up with its share of the settlement, he said.

Though named in most of the lawsuits, the archdiocese played a minor role in the proposed deal, according to lawyers, because Franciscan priests and brothers allegedly molested most of their victims at the now-defunct St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara. A few cases involved Franciscans at church parishes within the archdiocese.

"It is far and away the Franciscans who are funding the settlement," said attorney Brian Brosnahan, who represents the Oakland-based religious order.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles W. "Tim" McCoy brokered a tentative agreement late last week, according to court spokesman Allan Parachini. The judge plans to finalize the details this week.

The settlement represents a small fraction of the claims filed against the archdiocese since 2002, when a state law allowed alleged victims to sue for decades-old sexual abuse. Plaintiffs' lawyers have estimated that these cases could cost the archdiocese and its insurers as much as $1 billion to resolve.

Father Melvin A. Jurisich, provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars, Province of Santa Barbara, said his order was trying to do the right thing. "It's not over for the victims. It's not over for us," he said in an interview Monday. "All we can hope for is that healing can begin."

Under the agreement, 22 alleged victims will be paid $1.275 million each, lawyers said, among the largest per-claim amounts in any group settlement against the Catholic Church in California. It is on par with the Orange Diocese's record payment of $100 million to 90 victims, who each collected between $75,000 and $3.8 million, according to court documents.

The remaining three will receive about $100,000 each, lawyers said.

Attorneys for all sides are closely monitoring the settlement amounts because they could set a benchmark in the remaining cases against the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other dioceses in Southern California.

"Every case that settles sets some precedent," Hennigan said, calling the Franciscan settlement "a little high."

But Raymond P. Boucher, court-appointed liaison counsel for the more than 560 people suing the archdiocese, said the benchmark will be even higher for the remaining Los Angeles cases because, unlike archdiocesan priests, Franciscan friars take a vow of poverty and as a result, the order cannot pay more.

"We felt that this was fair and appropriate under the circumstances," Boucher said.

The Franciscans plan to put some of the $23 million from last year's sale of the seminary property in downtown Santa Barbara toward the settlement, he said. Insurers also will contribute.

The Franciscans also agreed to let a judge review for possible public dissemination hundreds of pages of internal church documents as well as depositions in the current litigation, attorneys said. The documents are expected to show how the order handled sexual abuse allegations among its clerics.

Jurisich also met privately with 14 of the alleged victims to apologize.

Ten current and former Franciscans were accused in lawsuits of fondling, masturbating, orally copulating and sodomizing the 23 men and two women from the 1950s until 1987, when the seminary closed for financial reasons.

Three of the accused priests are dead; four have been removed from ministry; and two of the three remaining are living with restrictions in Franciscan retreat houses, Jurisich said. The other is a priest in the Oakland Diocese.

Nearly half of the settled claims involve Mario Cimmarrusti, who was the prefect of discipline at St. Anthony's Seminary in the 1960s. Ten boys have accused him of molesting them. Cimmarrusti now lives at a Franciscan retreat house in Danville in Northern California and is barred from leaving there unsupervised, Jurisich said.

Four other claims involve convicted child molester Robert Van Handel, who was sentenced in 1994 to eight years in prison for molesting a 14-year-old boy while director of the Santa Barbara Boys Choir. He is a registered sex offender living in Santa Cruz, according to Jurisich. He is no longer a priest.

Another former priest, Gus Krumm, was removed from a Portland, Ore., church in 2002 after he informed church officials of "indiscretions" in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1995, the Franciscan Friars paid an undisclosed amount to a former seminary student who accused Krumm of abusing him. Another man sued, saying Krumm also abused him. He is part of the settlement.


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