Allowing the Boston Archdiocese to back out of a settlement agreed to verbally by its top official could set a legal precedent that would derail hundreds of lawsuits filed across the country by victims of child sexual abuse committed by priests.
Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney could rule as early as this week on a motion by 86 victims of former priest John Geoghan asking that the archdiocese be forced to honor a March settlement worth as much as $30 million.
Boston Cardinal Bernard Law testified in open court Friday about the agreement. Only one other archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, has testified in a case related to child abuse — a 1998 criminal proceeding against a priest accused of rape.
Law backed out of the settlement in May, claiming an archdiocese finance committee vetoed the deal. The panel said the archdiocese couldn’t pay the settlement and still have money for other suits against the archdiocese.
Church attorneys say the settlement was not final because it hadn’t been signed by several defendants, including Law. Law and other officials are accused of negligence for transferring Geoghan from parish to parish after they knew of accusations of child abuse.
Mary O’Connell, an associate dean at the Northeastern University law school and an expert in contract law, says most state laws uphold deals where an initial oral agreement exists. She said a ruling for the archdiocese could delay other suits and make simple settlements a thing of the past.
”Cases like this all over the country are undergoing negotiations,” she says. ”If the court allows the archdiocese to escape on a technicality, do other dioceses mimic the use of legal technicalities knowing that it saves them money but adds to their unseemly image?”
Law said Friday that he saw the agreement ”as a proposed settlement . . . it would have been better and cleaner if all of us had used the statement ‘proposed settlement.’ ”
Law was low-key and precise; he looke often at a TV camera broadcasting the session. His only slip was when he called plaintiffs’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian ”Mr. Geoghan.”
Law emphasized he still hoped an agreement could be reached. But statements by other archdiocesan officials indicate a protracted fight no matter what Sweeney rules.
Attorneys for the church have said if the judge upholds the agreement, it still would be blocked by the archdiocese’s failure to fund the escrow account. They have also cited state charitable immunity law, which limits the archdiocese’s liability to $20,000 a plaintiff.
Archdiocese chancellor David Smith has confirmed reports that church lawyers have been directed to look into filing for bankruptcy. Such a step would be a first for any Catholic diocese and severely limit settlement money.