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Victims could now collect

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Spotlight Report

Archdiocese abandons deal in Geoghan case

Committee rebuffs Law, cites serious fiscal threat

By Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 5/4/2002

 Text
Church's statement on settlement

 Related material
Timeline of the failed settlement
Members of the Finance Council

The Archdiocese of Boston yesterday abandoned its agreement to make monetary payments to 86 victims of serial pedophile John J. Geoghan after Cardinal Bernard F. Law's hand-picked Finance Council rejected it, citing concerns that its cost would leave the archdiocese in grave financial peril.

The decision provoked cries of betrayal from lawyers for alleged victims of clergy sex abuse.

Even officials close to the Catholic Church expressed concern that the decision would lead to protracted and damaging litigation that could take years to resolve.

The archdiocese said in a statement that the 15-member council of lay business people had overruled Law and his lawyer, Wilson Rogers Jr., who wanted to go ahead with the agreement, which was to cost the church and its insurers between $15 million and $30 million.

Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer for the Geoghan victims, reacted angrily, saying that Rogers had assured him on Thursday that the agreement would be honored.

Garabedian said the cardinal was ''despicable'' for ''the way he lied to my clients. How does this entity call itself a church when they treat children so inhumanely, when they allow children to be raped and then they lie to them like this?

''How anyone could belong to this church is beyond me - and you can quote me - when its cardinal has no respect for human beings,'' added Garabedian. He expressed skepticism that the Finance Council was acting against Law's wishes.

Instead of paying Garabedian's 86 clients up to $30 million, one of the Finance Council members said there was a consensus that all of the priestly abuse victims - who may number up to 600, including the 86 in the Geoghan case - would have to be content with sharing in a settlement that would not exceed $50 million.

The council, under canon law, must approve any expenditure of more than $1 million. Law said in a statement that he accepted the decision of the council. Last night, officials said they doubt that the council has ever rebuffed Law or any other cardinal.

Archdiocesan Chancellor David W. Smith, in the statement and in a subsequent interview, said the Geoghan settlements alone - without factoring in the flood of new plaintiffs - could have placed ''at risk the mission of the church.''

Before the mushrooming scandal began in January, the archdiocese faced claims from 90 Geoghan victims and 48 victims of other priests. But since then, the Globe has reported, more than 500 people who say they were also molested by priests have retained lawyers. Already, 150 new claims have been filed.

One official who was involved in the issue said last night that in mid-January the same Finance Council approved the $15 million to $30 million deal. When the tentative agreement with Garabedian was reached in March, Law issued a statement of support for it. And Rogers went before Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney and told her that his clients - Law and 16 other church officials, including five bishops - were prepared to sign it.

The official, who asked that he not be identified, said he believes Sweeney will not take kindly to the church's decision to renege on the agreement. Garabedian said he would seek an emergency court order on Monday to take a deposition from Law, which was postponed when the tentative agreement was reached.

However yesterday's decision is viewed by a watchful laity, one former archdiocesan official who is familiar with church finances said last night that the decision is the clearest evidence yet that the settlement costs, and the dramatic fall-off in giving, have driven the archdiocese to the brink of bankruptcy.

Tomorrow, parishes throughout the archdiocese will collect funds for the Cardinal's Annual Appeal, which last year raised $16 million - a large portion of the Chancery's annual operating budget. In the backwash from the scandal that has engulfed the archdiocese, there are concerns that the collection will raise less than half what it did last year.

The decision could also affect the cardinal's already diminished standing with Catholics, though some may see it as a reassuring sign that the church intends to take a hard line to protect its fiscal solvency - and battle the growing number of plaintiff lawyers who typically receive one-third or more of any settlement.

''The cardinal does not have enough good will to be reneging on any agreement,'' said the former church official, who asked that he not be identified. ''This is a compassionless response at the worst possible time.''

In rejecting the Geoghan settlements, the Finance Council recommended to Law a fixed ''non-litigious global assistance fund for all victims,'' paid from a pool of money that would not be ''crippling [to] the ability of the archdiocese to fulfill its mission.''

Under such a plan, victims would have to agree not to file lawsuits in return for payment of counseling and smaller settlements. Under the Geoghan agreement, in contrast, mediators would have decided the actual total payments that could not exceed $30 million. Under that plan, some Geoghan victims would have received settlements of more than $500,000 each.

The only alternative - and one that some lawyers last night vowed to take - was to take the archdiocese to trial. But under Massachsuetts' ''charitable immunity'' law, even the winner of a multimillion-dollar verdict could collect only $20,000. Until now, that cap has prompted lawyers to settle out of court for larger sums, with the archdiocese paying more in return for keeping the allegations secret.

Jeffrey A. Newman, who now has more than 100 alleged victims as clients, said the archdiocese's decision yesterday will almost certainly lead to a challenge to that law. Newman, among other lawyers, believes that the cap may not apply to acts, such as rape, committed by employees of a public charity.

The council urged Law to petition the Massachusetts court system to establish a new process for mediating the cases, according to council members, who asked not to be identified. A retired judge would be named by the court as a mediator to hear victims' allegations and determine how much money each should be paid to settle their cases.

In interviews after the decision, council members said the church would have to make major sales of church properties to settle the other claims that have arisen since January.

''It's the only way that we can finance this thing,'' said one official who attended the meeting. But some council members said they believe Law may only have a limited number of properties he could sell, chief among them the 60-acre site on the Newton-Brighton line where St. John's Seminary, the Chancery, and Law's residence are located. Boston College has already signaled its interest in buying that property.

Smith said last night that the council did not discuss what properties might be sold to finance any settlement fund.

Even though he was aware of the financial peril that the archdiocese would face by approving the Geoghan agreement, Law continued to seek the council's approval of the deal, Smith said.

''The cardinal believes that this agreement was negotiated in good faith and the archdiocese should go forward with it,'' Smith said. ''He has always said that he lives with the painful truth that there are no easy answers here.''

Regina A. Caines, an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who serves on the council, said that the council members were seeking to balance the need for compensation for Geoghan's victims with claims by others with similar claims.

''That's our professed hope, that there will be fairness and equity overall,'' Caines said. ''It's such a never-ending situation, one wonders about just making sure everyone is treated fairly and equitably.''

But the issue of fairness for Geoghan's victims dominated much of the reaction.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: ''This is simply grinding salt in the wounds of these poor men and women. For years, survivors have said, `Be careful, you can't trust the word of church leaders,' and this just proves that our skepticism and our worst fears are realized again.''

Clohessy added: ''These people clearly need and deserve help right now.''

Smith said the archdiocese has already paid about $30 million to settle sexual molestation cases before this year, with about a third of that from church funds. The Globe reported in February that over the last five years the archdiocese sold 60 percent of its stocks and 98 percent of its bonds to raise some $20 million in revenue, even as its other costs have risen and revenues have dropped.

Against that backdrop, lawyers who represent alleged victims said they would take the church to trial, if need be, rather than agree to the capped fund the archdiocese wants to impose.

Carmen Durso, one of those lawyers, predicted that Law will effectively become a full-time witness under oath. And lawyers will press for more embarrassing church documents.

''Some lawyers will say that Law should get on the witness stand and stay there,'' said Durso. ''The question will be: How bad can we make him look? How many times can we do it? How much can we embarrass him?''

Michael Rezendes of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached at kurkjian@globe.com.

Walter Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/4/2002.
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