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Spotlight Report

Victims agonize over church deal

Struggle with moral, legal questions about accepting settlement

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 10/8/2003

Correction: The original published version of this story described Jacqueline Petinge's agonizing over several weeks about whether to agree to the settlement. As of Monday night, when the Globe last checked with her, she had not decided whether to sign. On Tuesday she decided to accept.

The boilerplate legal language would not rate a second glance from a seasoned lawyer, but to Jacqueline Petinge, the words practically assault her from the page, stopping her dead each time she tries to decide whether to accept her share of the Archdiocese of Boston's $85 million settlement with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The release form that Petinge and more than 500 other victims must sign to claim their portion of the settlement says there is ''no admission of liability'' from the archdiocese in any ''matter, cause, or thing whatsoever from the beginning of the world to the date of this release.''

''You keep reading these words over and over,'' said Petinge, a 42-year-old Wilmington mother who says she was raped by a priest in Melrose dozens of times when she was 13. ''It has been exhausting to say the least. The questions just keep coming up, keep haunting me.''

Petinge has read the release over and over and met with her lawyer four times as she wrestles with the moral and legal questions left unresolved by the record-breaking settlement. While lawyers for plaintiffs confidently predict they will easily reach the 80 percent participation rate needed to make the agreement official, a tiny minority of victims are agonizing over taking money from the institution that turned a blind eye to their abusers as they were shuttled from parish to parish.

For some, accepting the settlement is akin to legally absolving the church of its central role in the clergy abuse scandal. Others cannot bring themselves to accept ''blood money.'' And some cannot bear to let go of the legal claims, which they have long viewed as the only leverage that forced the church to listen to their anguish and pleas for reform.

''They think about the church and say, `They get to go free, and I get to live with it the rest of my life,' '' said Ann Hagan Webb, New England cocoordinator of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. ''The question at some point becomes, `Is this what my life is worth?'

''It all comes into play when the piece of paper is in front of you, the one that says that the church is making no admission of guilt,'' Webb said. ''It's different when it's in front of you in black and white.''

For Petinge, that has meant an intense process of soul-searching as she pores over the possibilities and pitfalls of accepting the agreement with her lawyer, Martin Dropkin of Somerville.

First they talked on the telephone, Petinge said, followed by an e-mail exchange, then three face-to-face meetings, after which she signed the form. She then called Dropkin back and told him not to send the release to Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., the lawyer representing the archdiocese. Late last week she had yet another meeting with her lawyer to discuss her decision. She doesn't know when she will make her final decision, which must be done by Oct. 23.

Petinge says she feels that the church has done nothing to the priest she accused, the Rev. Robert D. Fay, who is on medical leave from the priesthood and now owns a real estate business in Brockton. Fay has told the Globe that he knew Petinge, but has denied molesting her. That feeling is shared by many of the people who have struggled, and continue to struggle, with the decision. ''The big fear is that everyone will take their bows, and the Catholic Church will say, `Hey, we fixed the problem now,' '' said one abuse victim, who asked not to be named.

Yet rejecting the settlement and pushing forward to trial with individual claims is also problematic. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have told their clients that it could take years for their cases to go to trial, and, if they do, the clients would probably be fighting against recent state Supreme Judicial Court rulings that limit legal damages against charitable institutions such as the archdiocese.

Some individual claims may also be barred by the statute of limitations, which was not a consideration in the settlement agreement, which covers abuse dating back decades.

The odds are so stacked against individual plaintiffs, lawyers said, that ultimately they expect that fewer than 12 of the 552 people eligible for the settlement will reject it and go to trial. That group is expected to include Gregory Ford, who has accused the Rev. Paul R. Shanley of raping him at the now-defunct St. Jean the Evangelist Parish in Newton, as well as other accusers of Shanley, the former self-described ''street priest'' who is expected to go on trial on criminal rape charges in Middlesex Superior Court in the spring.

Roderick MacLeish Jr. the lawyer for the Ford family and other Shanley accusers, said last week that none of them wanted to comment publicly on their decision.

The bleak prospect of success in court has upset undecided plaintiffs, such as 45-year-old William Oberle, who alleges that he was abused for 2 1/2 years in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Rev. Paul J. Mahan, when he was assigned to St. Ann's in Dorchester. Mahan was defrocked in 1998.

Oberle said that he would like to press his claim publicly in court, but that he's afraid that the church would be able to successfully argue that it is covered by the state's charitable immunity statute, which caps civil damage awards at $20,000 per claim.

Under the settlement agreement, anyone who was abused is entitled to an award of between $80,000 and $300,000, depending on the duration and the severity of the abuse.

Oberle, who recently left Dorchester to ''clear [his] head'' and live with relatives on the South Shore while he makes his decision, said the money is only important because he wants to put his daughter through nursing school.

The money ''doesn't do anything to repair my life,'' he said.

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