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Spotlight Report

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Clergy abuse settlement fuels advice on windfalls

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 11/15/2003

NEWTON -- "What's the first thing we do when we get our money?" a slightly perplexed man in a dark green fisherman's sweater asked Richard Colman, a financial planner from Carlisle who was running a recent seminar for people eligible for the $85 million settlement between the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"First, you put it in some place that's safe, like a money market or a savings account . . . just not under your mattress," Colman replied.

"But it's not safe in the bank," the man said. "I can get to it there."

The exchange illustrates both the opportunity and the danger in payments ranging from $52,000 to $200,000 that more than 500 alleged victims will receive in the coming weeks, after a team of arbitrators hears their claims and awards damages.

While the money may have a strong symbolic value, financial specialists, lawyers, and counselors who work with alleged victims are stressing that the money can either be a force for healing or a tool for self-destruction.

"Money is a magnifier," said Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and author of the book "Sudden Money: Managing a Financial Windfall." Her brother, Jeffrey, is a psychologist who helped organize the recent seminar at Boston College. "It can magnify the good or magnify the bad in any situation," she said.

The alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse are like others who may need help dealing with a large sum of money, such as benefactors of wills or life insurance policies, recipients of personal injury settlements, or lottery winners. A cottage industry seeks to help people deal with what is referred to as "sudden wealth" or "emotional money."

According to Bradley, insurance industry studies have shown that about 90 percent of people who receive lump-sum settlements have either spent it or wasted it after five years.

While large cash windfalls are often associated with negative events -- death, accidents, botched medical procedures -- those accepting settlements in the clergy sex abuse case may have additional emotional baggage, advocates say. Some will see the church money as tainted or dirty, even a payoff, and will be tempted to burn through it as quickly as possible by spending irresponsibly or, worse yet, using it to self-medicate with legal or illegal drugs.

"No one is all that excited about the money," said Boston lawyer Carmen Durso, who represents 42 plaintiffs who have accepted the settlement. "It's really weird. People are much more focused on getting through this process. It has been a real ordeal for everybody."

One lawyer involved in the settlement said recently that one of his clients is terribly troubled about accepting his share of the settlement, because doing so mimics the original abuse: Each time he was molested, he was given money by the priest who abused him, the lawyer said.

This past summer, a man who had accepted a check for his share of an earlier $10 million settlement between the Archdiocese of Boston and 86 alleged victims of the Rev. John J. Geoghan was arrested on bank robbery charges. He told police that he had exhausted his settlement money on a drug habit he developed after the agreement was reached, lawyers and law enforcement officials said.

Colman's advice to the 15 participants at the recent seminar might seem surprising: Stick the money in a savings or money market account and enter a "decision-free zone" for an extended period of time.

"Not doing anything is better than doing something wrong," Colman told the group. "Just try to relax. When you no longer feel compelled to do something, that's the time when it's probably OK to start thinking about investing."

Colman and other advisers stress that it is important for the alleged victims to deal with their feelings about the money before dealing with the money itself.

"There really aren't that many good ways to get large sums of money, and this is proof of that," said Richard Wagner, a former lawyer whose Denver-based company, Worth Living, advises people who receive large amounts of money, often associated with tragic events.

"My experience, when people get money from a negative event, is that they need time to grieve the event and then to make sure what you are doing is somehow purposeful," he said.

Doing something purposeful, the advisers said, can include things such as planning a secure retirement, paying down the mortgage, or subsidizing a family vacation or reunion.

After the seminar, Tom Blanchette, who said he was sexually abused hundreds of times by the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, said he was thinking about using some of his award as seed money for a faith-based initiative to teach abstinence in schools.

But for some alleged victims, particularly those who were chosen by their abusers because they were poor and vulnerable, the money may simply be a means to move out of a rooming house and put food on the table, said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represents numerous plaintiffs taking part in the settlement.

Overall, planners said the goal was the same: to encourage alleged victims to use the money in a way that enriches their lives.

"That would be the highest and best use, to use it in a way that they can have a reduced stress level in their lives for once and feel better about themselves," Bradley said.

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