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October 25
Victims could now collect

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Geoghan's sister hits guards

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Conviction erasure protested
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Spotlight Report

Geoghan victims agree to $10m settlement

By Walter V. Robinson and Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 9/19/2002

After months of bitter back-and-forth and the collapse of one agreement the Archdiocese of Boston embraced but then rejected, 86 plaintiffs in sexual abuse lawsuits against defrocked priest John J. Geoghan and church officials have agreed to accept $10 million to settle their claims, the plaintiffs' attorney announced yesterday.

Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney, said he expects Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney to ratify the agreement at a hearing this morning. If Sweeney goes along with the agreement, Garabedian said, he will hand archdiocesan lawyer Wilson Rogers Jr. settlement documents with 86 signatures and Rogers will hand him a check for $10 million.

But, he said, it will be a settlement without reconciliation: There will be no formal apology by the church for Geoghan's serial abuse, and no opportunity for statements in court by the victims, who will end up receiving, on average, about half of what the church agreed to pay in March. In May, the archdiocese's Finance Council voted down the agreement, declaring it too expensive.

''My clients,'' Garabedian said, ''feel that the archdiocese just does not care about them, and it's time for them to leave this darkness and move on with their lives. They have no faith in what the archdiocese says.'' Even if there were to be an apology, he added, ''it would be too little, too late.''

Donna M. Morrissey, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she could not comment on the agreement. But, in response to Garabedian's remarks, she said the archdiocese ''regrets any instance in which a child has been sexually abused ... It's horrific, and a heinous act of evil.''

Morrissey cautioned that the settlement will remain ''tentative'' until Sweeney accepts it. Garabedian, however, said the only remaining legal technicality is for Sweeney to accept the favorable recommendation of a court-appointed guardian for the only one of the 86 victims who is still a minor. Sweeney is widely believed to have encouraged a settlement.

The leader of a national victims group hailed news of the agreement, noting that it was Garabedian's lawsuit, and the courage and persistence of the plaintiffs, that helped expose the nationwide scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

''I just pray that this provides some comfort and closure and healing to these people who have suffered so long and so severely and so needlessly,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. ''It shows that some justice - not true justice - can be achieved when victims have the strength to come forward and stay united.''

Clohessy, who struggled to keep his composure when he learned of the agreement, said Geoghan's victims had become national symbols for those abused by priests since the scandal broke in January. ''They should feel extremely proud. If they had not stepped forward, literally thousands of victims might still be trapped inside secrecy and shame.''

Meanwhile, legal observers described the settlement as having potentially huge implications for other abuse cases in Boston and across the country.

Timothy J. Conlon, a Providence lawyer who just settled 36 claims against the Diocese of Providence for $13.5 million, said the Geoghan settlement could be a precursor to more settlements by victims of other priests. ''If they've managed to settle one set of claims, it establishes credibility in the process, and I would think that would provide an incentive for everyone to talk,'' said Conlon.

Other lawyers say they expect the archdiocese to seek to use the reduced Geoghan settlement as a benchmark for settlement of the estimated 300 pending abuse claims.

Geoghan, who was convicted of sexual assault earlier this year, is serving a nine- to 10-year prison sentence. He still faces another trial on charges of child rape.

Yesterday's breakthrough came when Garabedian obtained the last of the 86 victim signatures from Janet Greene, the mother of two Geoghan victims from Saugus who are also part of the settlement. Greene said in an interview yesterday that she signed the settlement only because she was told she was the last holdout and did not want to be responsible for blocking financial payments to the 85 other alleged victims. ''I'm just so tired of crying and feeling that I have the responsibility for all these people. I just had to make a decision,'' she said.

But Greene was sharply critical of the church, insisting that Cardinal Bernard F. Law had short-changed the victims. ''This settlement should have been fair but it's not even close,'' said Greene. ''The cardinal and his lawyers should be ashamed of themselves. I'm not sure how a man of the church, a cardinal and a leader, can justify this.''

Mark Keane, an alleged victim of Geoghan's abuse, said he is relieved that his years of fighting the church have come to a close but also criticized Law and church officials. ''These spiritual leaders have conducted themselves like the corporation they are,'' Keane said. ''They've acted very immorally.''

Under the original agreement, drawn up after months of secret negotiations overseen by mediator Paul A. Finn, the 86 plaintiffs - 70 of them victims and 16 of them relatives of the victims - would have split between $15 million and $30 million, with Finn basing the individual settlements on his assessment of the severity of the abuse and the damage suffered by each victim. The estimated cost of that settlement was between $20 million and $22 million.

The 86 plaintiffs fall into three broad groups: the 16 relatives; 20 others to whom Geoghan exposed himself when they were minors; and 50 people who suffered serious sexual abuse over the 30-year period when Geoghan was shuffled through six parishes even though a succession of bishops and Cardinals Humberto S. Medeiros and Law knew that he was a child molester.

Under the earlier agreement, the parents would have received $10,000 each. The 20 victims Geoghan exposed himself to would have divided $1.5 million, or an average of $75,000 each. And the 50 who were seriously victimized would have received settlements ranging from about $150,000 to as much as $900,000 each.

In an interview yesterday, Garabedian said the relatives will retain their $10,000 payments. The 20 exposure victims will average about $27,000 each. And the 50 other victims will split $9.3 million of the $10 million. With no mediator involved in the final settlement, Garabedian said he has set the payouts: Three victims will get $94,000 each. The 47 others will receive higher payments, with the highest at $313,000.

Like other attorneys who file similar lawsuits on a contingency basis, Garebedian will receive a percentage of the settlement, but he has declined to say how large a percentage. Typically, however, plaintiff attorneys receive at least one-third of the total. Although some attorneys have settled such claims quickly, most of the 86 claims against Geoghan have been fought with the archdiocese for more than three years.

Lawyers in other high-profile church abuse cases said that while the archdiocese might hope use this settlement as a model for settlements with other victims, attorneys for those victims will doubtless press for significantly higher amounts.

Sylvia Demarest, who negotiated a $31 million settlement for 12 victims in a Dallas case, said the settlement ''seems like good news for the diocese. It's a lot less than they were contemplating previously.'' Whether this case sets a precedent for other settlements depends on several factors, she said, including how tough-minded victims and their lawyers are about pushing forward to a trial.

''If the clients and the attorneys have the financial strength to go the distance, that has a big impact on any settlement,'' she said.

Garabedian said he hopes the settlement will bring some measure of closure for his clients. But Greene, though her payment has not been reduced, said reconciliation will be difficult for her.

''I feel like I'm being abused again. It's not closure; it's ridiculous,'' she said. She did, however, give Garabedian credit for working to expose how Law and other church officials allowed Geoghan to remain in active ministry after they had been credibly informed that he had molested children. ''What this should represent is a deep and profound apology for the damage that was done, but it's nothing. It isn't an apology. It's just scattering crumbs to the people and telling them to get out of the way.''

Matt Carroll of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.Walter Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com. Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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