January 15, 2004
Abuse victims seen accepting settlement
By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 9/12/2003
The response of individual plaintiffs to the $85 million tentative settlement in the Boston clergy sex abuse scandal has been so positive that lawyers in the case say they expect to easily achieve the 80 percent participation necessary to cement the deal with the Archdiocese of Boston.
The leading lawyers for plaintiffs said in interviews yesterday that they had polled as many as a third of the 550 people with sexual abuse claims against the church and more than 90 percent said they were leaning toward accepting the settlement. The agreement calls for the vast majority of plaintiffs to receive between $80,000 and $300,000 before attorneys' fees and expenses are deducted, based on the type and severity of abuse they suffered.
Only a handful of clients surveyed so far have indicated that they still intend to fight the archdiocese in court, the lawyers said.
"So far, we have had a very high percentage who said they are leaning toward accepting the settlement," said Jeffrey Newman, a lawyer with the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents at least 260 people who could be included in the settlement.
"We have contacted 63 people so far, and we are currently in the process of contacting all of our clients. We expect that it will take about a week," Newman said. "The calculated percentage of those we expect to say yes exceeds 98 percent."
Boston attorney Carmen L. Durso, who represents 42 plaintiffs covered by the tentative settlement, said early indications suggest they have the 80 percent.
Durso, however, said he and the other lawyers were being careful not to pressure their clients -- who have until Oct. 16 to opt into the settlement or opt out and go to court -- into a quick decision. "Most of the clients I have talked to have said, `I'm leaning toward it' and `I will probably take it,' " Durso said. "And that's good, because it is really important for them to make their own choices. Our clients really need to decide this for themselves, because choice was pretty much what was taken away from them by their abusers."
Lawyers said some clients may be reluctant to let go of their lawsuits, which gave them a feeling of empowerment and a sense that they could achieve change in the way the Catholic Church handles abuse cases. "I feel like we had some leverage and my first fear is that when I sign this paper, it's gone," said plaintiff Peter Pollard, who has filed a claim alleging sexual abuse by the Rev. George J. Rosenkranz at St. John's Parish in Salem more than 30 years ago. "All the quotes I hear about closure . . . this has been with me for 35 years. A check isn't going to close it for me. I just fear that it will close it for [the archdiocese]."
Other factors appeared to be encouraging clients to settle, lawyers said, including a private pledge by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley to meet individually with every plaintiff who requests a meeting through the archdiocese's Office of Healing and Assistance.
"That has been working. Meetings have already taken place with some of my clients," said Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 120 plaintiffs.
Both lawyers and church officials said they have been taking a low-key approach to the private meetings with O'Malley, which are not part of the settlement agreement and actually began before it was reached.
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that O'Malley "never wanted to give the impression that this was a public relations ploy."
Another significant factor in some clients' minds, lawyers said, has been the promise by the archdiocese to pay for therapy for victims, which is separate from the settlement. Polling clients, the lawyers said, was one of the first steps in an aggressive schedule designed to put settlement checks in clients' hands before New Year's Day.
The lawyers are scheduled to finish the final draft of the agreement by Tuesday, after which clients will have 30 days to decide whether to participate. The claims of all participants are expected to be analyzed by arbitrators by Dec. 22, lawyers said.
How much the church either pulls from its coffers or borrows is still to be determined. Lawyers involved in the case said that insurance companies have so far offered only $17 million, which the attorney for the archdiocese, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., has said is unacceptable.
Lawyers involved in the case expect insurance carriers to continue to negotiate with the church.