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L.A. Archdiocese reaches agreement with more than 500 abuse claimants

By Catholic News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- The Los Angeles Archdiocese July 15 announced the largest church settlement of sexual abuse lawsuits to date, agreeing to pay more than 500 alleged victims a total of $660 million.

Before noon the next day, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz had approved the settlement, calling it "the right result." He said settling the cases was "the right thing to do."

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony again offered his personal apology to every victim of sexual abuse by a priest, religious, deacon or layperson in the archdiocese.

"It is the shared hope of everyone in our local church that these victims, many of whom suffered in silence for decades, may find a measure of healing and some sense of closure with today's announcement," he said in a statement July 15.

"Although financial compensation in itself is inadequate to make up for the harm done to the victims and their families, still this compensation does provide a meaningful outreach to assist the victims to rebuild their lives and to move forward," he said.

The settlement -- reached by attorneys for the archdiocese and 508 people suing the archdiocese -- came the weekend before the first of 15 civil trials in Los Angeles County courts was to begin July 16. With the agreement in hand, Cardinal Mahony and attorneys for both sides instead appeared in court to present the formal settlement to Fromholz for approval.

Following Fromholz's action, Cardinal Mahony repeated his apology and his offer to meet privately with any victim of abuse who asks. "This particular day is a day for the victims to speak," he said, adding that he would spend the rest of the day in prayer.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said July 17 that the settlement "understandably has garnered great attention both because of the number of cases involved as well as for the figure of the settlement."

"But, as Cardinal Mahony -- in line with what John Paul II and Benedict XVI said many times -- the church obviously is pained mainly by the suffering of the victims and their families because of the profound wounds caused by the serious and inexcusable behavior of some of its members," Father Lombardi said.

He said the settlement agreement, "with the sacrifices it requires," is also a sign of the seriousness with which the church "has committed itself to doing everything possible to avoid a repetition of such wicked acts."

During the hearing, Ray Boucher, lead attorney for the victims, thanked his clients for their resolve and courage, asking them to stand. "I think they deserve a tremendous debt of gratitude," Boucher said, fighting back tears.

He credited Cardinal Mahony with taking steps that led to the settlement, which might not have occurred "if left to the lawyers."

Michael Hennigan, attorney for the archdiocese, said in the courtroom that his views of clergy sex abuse had changed over the years he spent on the cases, largely through his private meetings with 70 plaintiffs.

"I'd like to say that the church would have been reformed without these cases, but I don't know that's true," he said. "These cases have forever reformed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It will never be the same."

Margaret Graf, general counsel for the archdiocese, thanked county courts personnel for their role in helping to bring about a settlement through mediation.

"This was the courts at their best," said Graf. "We appreciate the enormous efforts of our Superior Courts in Los Angeles to deal with this very complex and sensitive litigation and the fact that they made the resources of the courts available."

She thanked in particular Judges Charles McCoy, Peter Lichtman and Fromholz, as well as the hundreds of attorneys and other legal professionals who represented the defendants and the victims.

In addition to the monetary settlement, the Los Angeles Archdiocese tried to facilitate a pastoral response toward the victims of clergy sexual abuse when possible.

For more than a year, Cardinal Mahony has been meeting with victims and their families individually, and hopes to continue meeting with victims, said Graf. The cardinal has met with more than 70 victims. McCoy, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge participated in most of the meetings -- sometimes lasting as along as three hours.

"Judge McCoy facilitated it so that there could be pastoral outreach and victims could tell the cardinal their story in a noncourt environment," she said.

The archdiocese also has been paying for therapy and counseling for victims, regardless of whether they are involved in litigation, said Graf.

Last December, the archdiocese announced the settlement of 45 lawsuits for $60 million.

Under the latest agreement, the archdiocese will pay $250 million and the balance will come from a combination of payments from insurance carriers and religious orders whose members have been accused in the abuse cases.

According to a tally prepared by the Los Angeles Times, the previous largest settlement of abuse cases in the United States since 2002 was the $157 million the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay to 983 claimants in several different settlement agreements. The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., agreed to pay $129 million to 315 claimants; the Diocese of Orange, Calif., agreed to pay $100 million to 90 claimants, and the Diocese of Covington, Ky., settled with 350 claimants for $85 million.

Cardinal Mahony said the new settlement and the one for $60 million announced in November "will have very serious and painful consequences for the archdiocese." He said the archdiocese will re-evaluate all ministries and services, "since we will not be able to offer them at the same levels as in the past."

The archdiocese will sell "nonessential properties" to fund its portion of the settlement, he said, adding that no parish properties or schools would be affected.

In May Cardinal Mahony said the archdiocese would sell its chancery building to help finance the settlements. Archdiocesan functions would either move to rented space elsewhere or the archdiocese would lease back space in its current building, he said.

About 50 properties had been identified as available to sell to cover the settlement costs.

Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, told Catholic News Service that the Los Angeles settlement is a watershed for the number of victims it includes. She said she hopes the settlement is the key to enabling the victims to achieve greater healing.

Reaching a court settlement for damages "is just one of the tools of healing," she said. "Hopefully time will tell whether it makes a difference."

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Contributing to this story were Cindy Wooden in Rome and Ellie Hidalgo in Los Angeles.

Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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