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Spotlight Report

Geoghan judge to handle all cases of clergy abuse

Lawyers who sought consolidation of cases applaud decision

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 6/6/2002

With several judges issuing sometimes conflicting rulings in civil cases involving alleged sexual abuse by priests, Superior Court Chief Justice Suzanne DelVecchio yesterday ordered all of the cases, more than 200, assigned to one judge.

DelVecchio's choice: Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, the iron-willed Springfield jurist who has spent the last year overseeing nearly 90 lawsuits against John J. Geoghan, the defrocked priest whose case sparked the sexual abuse crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Jeffrey A. Newman, an attorney who has 48 lawsuits pending, said last night that DelVecchio's office informed plaintiff lawyers of the decision late yesterday. The chief judge is expected to issue a formal ruling today.

Newman, one of three lawyers who filed a motion seeking the consolidation, applauded the decision. He said it will streamline the process and benefit both the plaintiff lawyers and the archdiocese. He said it will bring order, and perhaps a speedier resolution to the scandal, to have one judge issuing consistent rulings on document production, public access, and legal issues, such as the archdiocese claim that it has special protections from civil law on First Amendment grounds.

Until now, Newman said, the process was ''helter-skelter. We have been wasting a lot of judicial resources, not just legal resources.'' The move to consolidate the cases under one judge, he said, represents ''the beginning of the end'' of the legal battles over abusive priests.

It was unclear last night whether DelVecchio's move will delay the release of transcripts of Law's depositions this week in a case involving the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, and perhaps seal from public view the videotape of this week's testimony.

That is because Sweeney ruled, after Law was deposed a month ago in the Geoghan cases, that the videotape would be used only if the case went to trial and Law could not testify. She also held up the release of the transcript of the second day of his testimony, and is scheduled to hear arguments today on when to release the paper record of Law's testimony.

But in the Shanley case, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Raymond J. Brassard ruled differently. Brassard, who has also scheduled a hearing today, has ruled that the video and the transcript of this week's testimony can be made public, perhaps as early as tomorrow.

Both judges, however, have ruled broadly for public access. It was Sweeney who ruled last November, on a motion by the Globe, that the explosive documents in the Geoghan lawsuits be made public.

Under DelVecchio's order, Sweeney will face a mountain of claims: Since the Church's long-standing efforts to keep sexual misbehavior by its priests a secret became public in January, more than 500 alleged victims have retained attorneys. More than 100 of those claims have already proceeded to the lawsuit stage.

Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 86 of Geoghan's alleged victims, expressed wariness last night at the decision. The archdiocese had agreed to settle the 86 claims for between $15 million and $30 million, but backed out of the deal in April. Garabedian is seeking to have Sweeney enforce the agreement.

Garabedian said he hopes the chief judge's decision does not have the effect of ''lumping all claims in one pot, so the pedophile priests and their enablers can say, `OK, you caught us, so let's have an Industrial Accident Board of Claims that will give out small amounts to each victim.'''

Carmen Durso, who also sought the consolidation, applauded DelVeccio's move.

''This is a very good thing that hopefully will ultimately lead us to a conclusion,'' said Durso, who has only one case in court, but represents 25 to 30 other victims allegedly abused by eight to 10 priests.

One result of consolidation will be an accurate count of accused priests and alleged victims, which will help in the settlements, he said.

Walter Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com.

Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 6/6/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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