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Spotlight Report

Archdiocese to sell residence

Brighton parcel to help finance abuse settlement

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 12/4/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston will sell one of its most symbolic and coveted properties, the ornate cardinal's residence in Brighton, and 28 surrounding acres to help pay the $85 million settlement with 540 victims of clergy sexual abuse, a spokesman for Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said last night.

The surprise move -- church officials had said for more than a year that the Brighton property would not be sold -- is part of a financing plan announced by O'Malley. The plan fulfills the archbishop's pledge that no parish assets or funds from the archdiocese's annual appeal and capital campaigns would be used to pay for the clergy sexual abuse scandal, his spokesman said.

O'Malley's "message is that he is a man of his word," the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne said.

Under the plan, which O'Malley presented to the archdiocesan Finance Council and two other advisory boards yesterday, the archdiocese will take out one or more short-term loans to fund the entire $85 million settlement and then pay back the lenders with proceeds from the sale of the Brighton property and from an expected settlement with the church's insurance companies.

The real estate to be sold includes the cardinal's residence and the eastern half of the archdiocese's 60-acre property on Commonwealth Avenue. The archdiocese is keeping the other half of the campus, which is the site of St. John's Seminary, the chancery, and office buildings.

Coyne said the church has no buyer lined up, although one suitor is certain to be expansion-hungry Boston College, which has had problems for decades trying to extend its campus in the densely built, high-priced area.

One commercial real estate specialist valued the package at no less than $1 million per acre and possibly more than $3 million per acre. Those prices would bring the archdiocese from $30 million to $100 million for the property.

Estimates of a settlement between the church and its insurance companies, Kemper and Travelers, range from $15 million to $50 million. O'Malley has said he is prepared to sue the insurers if negotiations over the coverage do not reach a settlement.

"We are pretty sure we can realize the $85 million total from both the sale of the property and an insurance settlement," Coyne said. He said the finance council and other boards briefed on the plan by O'Malley do not have to approve the sale.

While church officials hope news of the plan will allay concerns about archdiocesan finances, there were several unanswered questions last night, including where the church would borrow the $85 million in the short term.

Coyne would not comment on the source of the short-term financing, saying it had not been finalized. He also declined to comment on how the church would pay the interest on the short-term loans or detail how much of the proceeds of the real estate sale would be used to defray a $38 million existing mortgage on the Brighton property.

Coyne said church leaders hope that the announcement of the plan reassures ordinary worshipers, as well as larger financial contributors, that their donations will not be used for the landmark settlement, which involved cases covering decades. During that time, officials from the cardinal on down ignored or systematically covered up reports of abuse by priests.

Coyne also said that plans to sell the real estate were purposely revealed prior to an announcement, expected within days, of a major consolidation of parishes in the archdiocese. O'Malley was very concerned that parishioners affected by consolidation be given assurance that their local church is not being closed to fund the abuse settlement.

The ornate cardinal's residence, a four-story mansion atop a hill overlooking Commonwealth Avenue, had become for many a symbol of the distance between church leaders and the concerns of lay people, and was particularly identified with O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law. As the clergy sex abuse crisis intensified last year, there were calls for Law to sell the residence.

After O'Malley was installed as archbishop in July, he decided to live, not in the residence, but in the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

Coyne insisted yesterday that O'Malley intended no symbolism in the sale.

"He was left with very few assets that could fund the settlement that were in the central control of the diocese," Coyne said. "And since [he was] not living in the residence at this time, it was considered the most easily transferred property."

Still, advocates for abuse victims and critics of the church hierarchy said that sale of the property would be considered a positive step by ordinary Catholics.

"It shows Archbishop O'Malley's willingness to do what many people thought was unthinkable: to sell the jewel in the property assets of the archdiocese," said James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a group that advocates increased lay involvement in church decisions. "My sense is that the average person is going to applaud this. There is very little emotional attachment on the part of average Catholics to the cardinal's residence."

Ann Hagan Webb, the New England cocoordinator of the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the announcement "a very positive thing." Alleged abuse victims and their advocates have long advocated the sale of the Brighton property as both a source of funds for a church settlement and a symbolic gesture of apology.

"The cardinal's residence is opulent and has always been a show of deference to a hierarchy that has shown itself to be less than reputable," Webb said last night. "I think it is a major signal to laypeople and to victims that they [church officials] mean to change the way they do things."

Despite the positive reaction to the news of the decision to sell, the church faces other factors of financial uncertainty connected with the clergy abuse scandal.

While church officials are still using $85 million as the amount owed to victims, that number was based on full participation in the agreement. Because 540 of the 552 eligible claimants (about 98 percent) signed on to the settlement, the actual total of the award is just over $83 million.

Lawyers have estimated, however, that if the dozen or so people who have chosen to continue to fight in court are successful, the archdiocese could face paying out another $10 million to $20 million. The archdiocese has also pledged to pay for therapy once a week for life for each victim who requests it, a promise that could cost millions over the long term.

The 540 victims participating in the settlement are currently telling their stories to a team of arbitrators from Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, a Brockton-based dispute resolution firm. When all claims have been heard, the arbitrators will determine the amount of each award within a range of $80,000 to $300,000.

The archdiocese is obligated to pay the entire $83 million to the victims and their lawyers before Christmas.


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