In a gesture aimed at assuring 500 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse that the Boston Archdiocese is committed to a financial settlement of their claims, the newly named apostolic administrator, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, said yesterday that he has selected church properties for sale and directed officials to put them on the market ”as soon as possible.”
Lennon would not say which properties will be sold, but said he is seeking – in his first week on the job – to demonstrate his resolve to settle the growing number of sexual abuse cases. ”I chose a number of properties and asked the chancellor to go forward and market them as soon as possible, so we can show our commitment to this,” Lennon said.
But Lennon also said that, in a move designed to include the church’s insurance companies in a comprehensive settlement, church lawyers today will serve attorneys of alleged victims with notice of a motion to have all their claims dismissed based on the US Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
Lennon said the motion is being filed to satisfy insurance companies’ requirements that the church avail itself of every significant defense before contributing to the settlement of claims.
But he insisted that the first priority of the archdiocese is to reach such a financial agreement.
”The reason we’re serving the motion primarily is to keep the insurance companies in the loop,” Lennon said in an interview. ”There’s no way the archdiocese can financially come up with the money that is needed to have fair settlements on its own. We need the insurance companies.”
A law firm advising the archdiocese has concluded that the church has at least $90 million available for a settlement, most of it through coverage provided by two companies, Travelers and Kemper. And lawyers for the alleged victims have estimated that a comprehensive settlement covering the 500 pending claims could exceed $100 million.
Lennon said that he believes, as a matter of principle, in the First Amendment defense advanced in the motion to be served today, but that the primary purpose of the motion is to satisfy the insurance companies.
”Our first priority is to respond to victims and survivors,” Lennon said. ”Yet, what we’ve put together for the motion is substantial. The document is a document of integrity and substance.”
The Rev. Robert W. Oliver Jr., a canon law professor at St. John Seminary, accompanied Lennon in the interview at the seminary in Brighton.
Oliver said church leaders fear that plaintiffs and their lawyers in the sexual abuse cases will interpret the motion literally and not see it as a strategy to assure the participation of insurance companies in a settlement. ”The risk is they’ll think we’re walking away, and what we’re actually doing is the opposite,” he said.
When told of the church’s plan last evening, Roderick MacLeish Jr. a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, which represents about half of the 500 people with pending claims against the archdiocese – said that the step outlined by Lennon was not unexpected. He said he believes Lennon’s explanation.
”I would not criticize Bishop Lennon for taking this step,” MacLeish said. ”I believe he is genuine and wants to reach a resolution of these cases. I want to give him a chance to do it.”
MacLeish said that Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who is handling all the abuse claims against the archdiocese, had earlier set today as the deadline for the archdiocese to formally notify the plaintiffs’ lawyers that it will seek to have all claims dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
MacLeish also said he does not believe that other lawyers for alleged victims will criticize the move, despite Lennon’s evident concern that the church’s latest legal maneuver would be seen by some as a way for the church to shelter itself from victims’ claims.
MacLeish noted that the First Amendment argument has already been rejected by several Superior Court judges in Massachusetts, including Sweeney when she ruled in November 2001 in favor of the Globe’s motion to unseal church records in the case of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan.
It was only a month ago when Sweeney, using unusually harsh language, denied a church motion on constitutional grounds to shield 11,000 pages of church documents on priests accused of sexual misconduct. Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned as archbishop of Boston after the documents were made public.
Although no Massachusetts appellate court has ruled on the merits of the church’s First Amendment claim, MacLeish said he believes it is unlikely that Sweeney would rule favorably on the motion.
In other states, he added, the trend has been for appellate courts to reject church arguments that it ought to be immune from civil claims resulting from the assignment of its priests because of its First Amendment protection against government interference in religion.
”We are not asking the court to regulate the liturgy,” MacLeish said. ”We are only arguing that the court has a primary role when the church knowingly puts children within reach of child molesters.”
Lennon said that when church lawyers serve the motion today, he will enlist the assistance of parish priests in explaining to parishioners and alleged victims that the filing is aimed at guaranteeing participation of its insurance carriers in a comprehensive settlement and not on actually having the claims dismissed.
In addition, Lennon renewed his call for a moratorium on the legal battle between the church and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, so that all parties can focus on negotiating a settlement, a suggestion he made last Wednesday in his first public remarks as interim leader of the archdiocese.
But the moratorium remains only a possibility. After Lennon’s initial request, MacLeish and church lawyers argued over when Law will be available to resume his pretrial testimony in lawsuits filed by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley.
And Mitchell Garabedian, who represents about 20 percent of those with pending abuse claims against the archdiocese, said yesterday that although he will participate in settlement talks, he will not agree to a moratorium on litigation.
”Although many individuals would like to see these cases settle, any delay in the litigation will only irreparably harm the plaintiff,” Garabedian said.
In any case, Lennon said, the archdiocese will move ahead with selling church property and begin new talks with its insurance carriers to determine how much they are willing to contribute to a settlement.
”We are totally committed to settling all the claims with all the victims in a just, equitable way,” Lennon said. ”In no way has that changed.”