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Priest-Abuse Lawyers Resist Consolidation

Attorneys On Both Sides Say Idea Presents Problems

Jan 10, 2003

Inland area lawyers on both sides of the clergy sex-abuse scandal are opposing a plan floated in Los Angeles to consolidate all of the Southern California suits in the courtroom of a single Los Angeles County judge.

Wilfrid C. Lemann, who represents the Diocese of San Bernardino, said Thursday he does not anticipate consolidating any clergy sexual-abuse lawsuits with the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange.

Riverside lawyer William Light, who is representing a Big Bear Lake man who said he was sexually abused as a teen-ager by a priest in San Bernardino County, said, "I think it's a horrible idea (to consolidate the cases).'

Attorneys for alleged victims of clergy abuse in the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange agreed earlier this week to coordinate up to 500 molestation lawsuits before one judge.

Lemann said lawsuits against the diocese aren't likely to equal the number of cases against Los Angeles and Orange.

"The class action in Los Angeles has maybe 200 people over an 80-year period,' Lemann said. "I think we might end up with 10 (lawsuits), maybe 12. We don't have the huge numbers.'

Costa Mesa attorney John C. Manly has filed a petition before the state Supreme Court asking that all Catholic sexual-abuse lawsuits be heard by one court.

Light, attorney for Kevin English, a Big Bear Lake resident who is suing the Diocese of San Bernardino; the Rev. Paul Shanley; Cardinal Bernard F. Law, former archbishop of Boston; and others, saying that he was sexually abused by Shanley, said, "I think it'll be a tragedy because the people of San Bernardino County won't get a chance to be heard.

"The people of San Bernardino have a right to have that heard.'

Light said a change of venue would also be unfair to English, 30. The attorney noted that although consolidating clergy-abuse cases from the three dioceses may achieve uniformity, the cases should be tried in the county where the alleged crimes occurred.

Meanwhile, Light said he's in the process of serving English's lawsuit to 10 known defendants including former San Bernardino Bishop Phillip F. Straling.

A flood of sexual-abuse cases involving Catholic priests is expected to be filed in courts this year because of a state law that extends the statute of limitations through 2003 for purported victims to sue.

If the state's highest court rules in Manly's favor, then the Diocese of San Bernardino would have to participate in a consolidated case.

"We wouldn't want to get painted with the same brush as Los Angeles,' Lemann said, referring to the large number of sexual-abuse accusations levied against that archdiocese.

"The good news is in our young life, we are pretty good,' Lemann said. "We have a minimum of problems. Do we want to hook up with the others? Probably not.'

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange agreed to review some personnel files, parish transfer records and other documents and begin turning them over to plaintiffs' lawyers within 20 days.

"We have basically accomplished a procedure that in the past would have taken a year,' said Stephen C. Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who is helping represent 81 alleged abuse victims in the two counties.

The agreement came during a two-hour conference on Wednesday between Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman and 13 attorneys.

Lichtman, who specializes in complex cases and had already been urging the two sides in a class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles archdiocese toward mediation, said he would assume responsibility for four lawsuits that have been filed in Orange County "for settlement purposes.'

He also indicated that he would be willing to mediate any active or pending cases from other Southern California jurisdictions.

"Unless somebody says they don't want to remain in my jurisdiction, I'll assume they are here,' Lichtman said, noting that it would be several weeks before the state Judicial Council acts on Manly's petition.

The judge set another status hearing for Feb. 25.

Plaintiffs' lawyers are supposed to develop a "case management order' proposing how the lawsuits will be handled at various stages in the system and to draw up a spreadsheet containing information on all the alleged victims and abusers. Staff Writer Chris T. Nguyen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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