Ending a 10-year legal battle, the Diocese of Providence has agreed to pay $13.5 million to settle lawsuits filed by 36 people who said they were sexually abused by clergy in various parishes over many years in the nation’s most Catholic state.
The settlements, announced yesterday, covered 11 clergy – 10 priests and one nun – accused of acts ranging from fondling to rape. The victims will receive
varying amounts depending on the severity of the case. The largest awards will go to the two victims whose abuse was most recent and who could, but for the settlement, have taken the matter to trial.
Addressing an afternoon news conference outside his chancery, the Most Rev. Robert E. Mulvee, the bishop of Providence, apologized ”with deepest sadness” to the victims, some of whom were present and wept as he spoke. ”We must face the reality that they have been betrayed by such abominable actions.”
”I hope that this action,” Mulvee added, ”will be helpful to the victims of abuse and bring them, in some way, closer to closure and reconciliation with their God, their church, their families, and themselves.”
Some of the victims in the case yesterday spoke less of reconciliation than of relief that a settlement had finally been reached – and of bitterness that it took so long. But there was also, for some, a deep response to the bishop’s personal apology.
”I feel like a 2-ton weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” said Lee White, 46, now of Virginia, who alleged he was molested as a 14-year-old at Jesus Saviour Church in Newport. ”It means more than anything to have the bishop admit he is sorry. You can’t put a price on that.”
”My feelings about the church are really mixed,” said Joe Ruggeri, 42, who said he was 10 years old when he was molested. ”I’m grateful they came to the table and recognized what happened to us, but I’m angry it took so long and put so many people through so much agony.”
All the priests who were targets of the litigation have been suspended, but none have been defrocked. Fourteen of the suits were brought against just two priests: the Rev. James Silva, who faced eight claims, and the Rev. Robert Marcantonio, with six. Several of the clergy have been convicted of sex abuse crimes and served jail time, but there are no pending criminal proceedings.
All the suits against the priests and the diocese, which covers the entire state, were dropped as part of the settlement.
Mulvee said in a statement that the agreement, achieved after marathon mediation sessions that ran from July 22 through Aug. 19, will be paid from ”internal and external financing.” He estimated it would take 10 to 15 years to pay off the financing of the settlement with insurance money, unrestricted investment reserves, and perhaps the sale of diocesan property. One property that could end up on the block is the bishop’s oceanfront summer residence in exclusive Watch Hill, said Mulvee. No money from parishes or church-affiliated charitable groups will be used, he said.
The Rhode Island agreement is substantially larger than the $10 million now being offered by the Boston Archdiocese to 86 alleged victims of defrocked priest John Geoghan. But the legal circumstances in the two dioceses are different: In Providence, the settlement covered all but two plaintiffs who had brought abuse cases against Catholic clergy there. (One of the remaining two cases involves an 11th priest accused of abuse.) In Boston, the Geoghan plaintiffs are part of a pool of about 300 claimants, and the archdiocese has pressed for a settlement figure that will enable all the cases to be settled without undercutting the church’s ability to finance day-to-day operations.
Donna M. Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the Boston Archdiocese, said she was unfamiliar with the details of the Rhode Island agreement, but added, ”Any time cases are settled in a fair and equitable manner, that’s a step in the right direction.”
When asked whether the Boston Archdiocese was being equitable as it offers less money to a larger group of alleged victims, Morrissey said, ”It would be irresponsible for me to try and compare two different dioceses and two different sets of discussions about settlements without being privy to all the details.”
The attorney pressing the Geoghan cases, Mitchell Garabedian, had no comment on the Rhode Island settlement.
Both sides in Rhode Island had been under increasing pressure from the courts to settle the litigation, which began with a single case in 1992. In 1994, as more clergy sexual abuse complaints were filed, all the cases against clergy were combined, with a goal of speeding pretrial maneuvering. But the pace only slowed, plaintiff lawyers complained, as the church fought to keep its records secret.
The pace quickened last fall when a new judge, Robert D. Krause, took charge. In one major ruling, in June, Krause rejected the church’s argument for secrecy, saying church officials must hand over documents and answer questions about the clerics’ abuse.
The judge’s decision was based in part, Krause said, on the pledge of openness by Catholic bishops at their conference in June in Dallas. Krause said there was no legal shield to protect the church from turning over information about ”a pedophile priest who has engaged in sexual assaults upon children.”
Yesterday, lawyers for the plaintiffs praised the diocese for the way, in the end, the agreement was achieved.
”They treated our clients with respect,” said attorney Timothy J. Conlon. ”They gave them the courtesy of listening to very painful sagas and showed real empathy for the pain they had been put through.” He said the diocese had offered to pay for all past and future therapy, outside of the settlement with the victims.
Some victims said that the marathon mediation sessions helped them deal with the emotional aftermath of abuse. In 12- and 13-hour sessions, groups of up to 11 victims met with the mediators and Monsignor Paul D. Theroux of the diocese, and many praised Theroux for his compassion as they told their stories.
”Many of us felt we had left behind a big burden at the end of the day,” said plaintiff Phyllis Hutnak.