Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Boston and 86 plaintiffs in the John J. Geoghan sex abuse suit have agreed to a “tentative” $10 million settlement after the judge overseeing their case urged them to cut a deal, a key attorney said last night.
The accord – a far cry from the $15 million-to-$30 million deal announced and abandoned by Bernard Cardinal Law in the spring – has been pre-approved by the Archdiocesan Finance Council, J. Owen Todd, personal attorney for Bernard Cardinal Law, told the Herald.
“Whether it was needed or not, it was approved,” Todd said, adding Law also OK’d the accord.
“This amount is what is doable via church insurance,” he said.
The deal must be sold by attorney Mitchell Garabedian to all his clients, Todd and sources said. The sources say Garabedian spent Labor Day weekend urging his 86 plaintiffs to accept the $10 million offer or risk drawn-out litigation.
Todd said Garabedian, lead attorney for the 86, told him yesterday all but one of the plaintiffs had agreed to the settlement. All must agree for the deal to be final.
Garabedian did not return numerous calls seeking comment.
Nonetheless, multiple sources said everything was in place to make the $10 million agreement a reality – including sufficient liability insurance to cover the entire $10 million payout by the church, and a willingness by Garabedian to recommend the deal to his clients.
Todd said it would fall to Garabedian, and not an outside mediator, to divvy up the $10 million among his clients. Under the abandoned deal, a mediator was to allocate sums based on the degree of abuse suffered by the victims.
Sources also said Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney has pushed hard behind the scenes for the revamped $10 million accord.
The sources said Sweeney, who is overseeing scores of lawsuits against the church over clergy abuse, wanted to avoid ruling on whether the initial, more costly deal between Garabedian and the church should be made binding.
Sweeney held hearings a month ago on whether the first settlement should be enforced by court order.
Garabedian argued then that the $15 million-to-$30 million deal was binding, even though it was unsigned, because of statements made in court by lawyers for the church.
The church argued the deal was only “provisional.” It said its Finance Council vetoed the deal because of its great financial burden.
Sweeney “left a lot of time” between the end of that hearing and her anticipated ruling “to create a framework for a settlement,” a legal source explained yesterday.
“She wouldn’t say anything overt,” the source said. “But she would do things and say things that would give some indications to the parties of what their risks are if she was forced to rule.”
Garabedian is reportedly explaining to his plaintiffs that Sweeney might well rule against them on whether the larger settlement amount should be made binding.
If so, the lawyer would be forced to sue on behalf of each individual, a process that would take years.
Even if Sweeney were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs and impose the earlier settlement, the church could appeal, a process that could take several years, Todd said.
A lawyer involved in cases with the archdiocese said on condition of anonymity that Sweeney made it clear she would rather have the cases settled then wade through a long series of individual trials.
Under an earlier decision, the courts determined Sweeney would handle all cases related to clergy sexual abuse. Sources say Sweeney is looking beyond the Garabedian clients to the 300-plus other plaintiffs who are seeking compensation for sexual abuse by clergy.
A deal in the Geoghan matter “has at least the potential to be a framework for settlement of the other cases,” a legal source said.
“If indeed it’s a settlement that reasonably takes to account what individual victims have suffered at the hands of priests,” the source said, “it could very well result in all the cases resolving quickly.”
Victims of rape have received as much as $400,000 in clergy molestation suits, according to people involved in previously settled cases. Many of those deals came with confidentiality provisions.
But the church has stated it would fall back on the state’s $20,000 per victim charitable liability cap if plaintiffs refuse to settle for amounts the church can readily pay out via a combination of insurance, donations and very limited non-pastoral asset sales.
Sources say years of legal defense would eat up a large share of the church’s liability insurance.
Church officials are eager to set the stage for a speedy series of settlements that would allow them to turn the corner on the crisis and focus on restoring church morale.
Carmen L. Durso, a lawyer handling abuse cases, said a settlement would be positive. “This has been a terrible time for victims,” he said. “My clients would like their cases to end, the publicity to end, all the talking to end, and they’d like to stop thinking about it.”
John Sacco, a victim of Geoghan who settled his case, said: “The money doesn’t fix anything. What we need is a treatment center.”