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Priest Abuse Suits Likely

Dec 4, 2002 | San Bernardino Sun

At least five sex-abuse lawsuits are expected to be filed against the Diocese of San Bernardino in the coming weeks in light of the state Legislature's modifying the statute of limitations on decades-old claims.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the diocese, said he thinks two lawsuits could be filed at most.

However, Los Angeles-based attorney Raymond Boucher, who is handling at least 100 sex-abuse cases against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Diocese of Orange, said he has at least five lawsuits he expects to file against the San Bernardino Diocese, which covers both San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Beginning Jan. 1 through the end of next year, the Legislature will allow victims to sue dioceses even if previous claims were settled out of court.

On Sunday, a letter will be read to parishioners of the San Bernardino Diocese and other dioceses up and down the state alerting them of the potential lawsuits.

Bill Lemann, an attorney for the San Bernardino Diocese, said he doesn't anticipate any local lawsuits, despite the letter's warning.

"The fact of the matter is this diocese has been vigilant and on the forefront of the national church in terms of misconduct policies,' Lemann said. "This diocese, under the leadership of Bishop (Gerald) Barnes and the previous bishop, has acted like a church and taken responsibility in a very effective way.'

Boucher said that in addition to the five clients who have retained him in connection with cases in the San Bernardino Diocese, he has talked with three or four more people about representing them in lawsuits against the diocese.

One of the lawsuits, involving old allegations, could be filed as early as next week, Boucher said.

"Until the San Bernardino Diocese actually contacts and reaches out to old victims and makes arrangements to help the victims, it's really more just public relations to say they are at the forefront,' Boucher said. "There are a large number of people who continue to suffer who were molested in the Diocese of San Bernardino.'

Lincoln has said the diocese has reached out to victims and in some instances has paid for counseling.

In Sunday's letter, the bishops write that the church doesn't have lots of money like secular businesses and spends the money it does have on the poor.

"The Catholic Church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with 'deep pockets.,'' the letter says. "In reality, the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities, and other institutions.

"They are not devoted to the accumulation of wealth, but to the education, worship, and sacraments: to the poor and other works of charity. With God's help, the church must continue to respond to the needs of the victims of abuse and maintain the vital spiritual, educational and social services provided to the Catholic community and to our society at large.'

Boucher said it's shameful that the priests will read a letter to parishioners that indicates that the church doesn't have money.

"It is something drawn up by lawyers and public relations firms designed to suppress practicing Catholics who were abused as children and guilt them into suffering in silence,' Boucher said. "They are hoping that they don't come forward in hopes that they can wash this scandal away.'

Lincoln said the letter is being read so that parishioners are informed of the status of the sex-abuse scandal as part of an effort to remain 'transparent' about what the diocese is doing.

"We have promised to be open and accountable,' Lincoln said. "Bishop Barnes believes it is his duty to inform and prepare the people for the possible effects of this legislation. I think the parishioners understand what is going on and appreciate the openness.'

The diocese, in financial trouble because of a lackluster stock market and unrelenting growth, should survive any lawsuits that come up, Lincoln said.

The Boston Archdiocese, plagued by the most serious sex-abuse scandal in the country, is considering bankruptcy because of litigation costs.

Insurance should pay for any judgments in the San Bernardino Diocese, Lincoln said.

In the past 24 years, insurance has paid about $658,000 to settle five lawsuits concerning the sexual abuse of children in the diocese.

The diocese has only sustained a cost of $6,700 that went to counseling for sex-abuse victims, Lincoln said.

"In terms of the legislation itself, we are fully supportive of any legitimate measures that bring about healing for victims of sexual abuse,' Lincoln said. "Our diocese will respond to any bona fide claims, and we will do the right thing.'

Lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese plan to contest the constitutionality of the legislation in court.

They say it is unfair to allow a case to go forward that is several decades old because some of the lawsuits could involve perpetrators and witnesses who are already dead.

"Under those circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible to ascertain the truth,' Sunday's letter says. "The ability to conduct a fair and vigorous search for the truth has been part of the very foundation of our American system of justice for more than two centuries.'

Lemann believes the legislation unfairly singles out the Catholic Church.

"It is designed to attack the Catholic Church,' he said. "This legislation does have an effect on public schools and other people that supervise individuals, but I think the Legislature and Gov. Davis passed this for political reasons.'

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