The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


$10m Geoghan deal is dwarfed by others

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 9/8/2002

The Jesuit order avoids a civil trial in California by paying $7.5 million to two men who say they were sexually molested by Catholic priests. The Tucson Diocese pays $14 million to 16 people who file lawsuits accusing priests of abuse. And the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Orange County Diocese pay a record $5.2 million to settle a suit by one man who says he was molested by a priest while attending Catholic high school.

But in Boston, church officials have prevailed on 86 people who have sued over allegations of abuse by convicted sex abuser and defrocked priest John J. Geoghan to consider dropping their claims for $10 million - a figure that would place one of the most egregious and highly publicized examples of clergy sexual abuse near the lower end of recent financial settlements.

To those tracking the clergy abuse scandal across the nation - especially lawyers with pending cases - the possibility that the Geoghan cases at the epicenter of the billowing sexual abuse scandal might settle for $10 million is stunning and disturbing. That is partly because plaintiffs in the Geoghan case will receive far less than some victims in other dioceses and partly because of concern that the church will try to use the $10 million figure as a benchmark for settlements in other parts of the country.

''That's just shockingly low considering what's been paid in other dioceses,'' said Lynne Cadigan, an attorney who represented plaintiffs in the Tucson case and has settled other clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. ''Even the most minimal settlements that I've been involved with have amounted to more than that.''

Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has worked on scores of clergy sexual abuse suits in other states, said the $10 million figure is so low that, if it is approved, other dioceses may attempt to use it as a standard. ''I'm deeply concerned for the survivors community that church officials could use this as a measurement for other cases,'' Anderson said. ''Ten million dollars for 86 people is not full accountability.''

Boston church officials insist they have lowered their initial offer to the Geoghan plaintiffs because of the more than 300 additional claims of clergy sexual abuse that have been made - a number that exceeds pending claims in many other dioceses - and a desire to award fair compensation to all victims without compromising essential church operations.

''In the Archdiocese of Boston we're dealing with a large number of victims in comparison to some other areas, while the funds that are available through insurance and through archdiocesan funds and disposable property are limited,'' said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a church spokesman.

But victim advocates and several attorneys said the Geoghan plaintiffs should not have to accept comparatively lower compensation because the archdiocese may have difficulty making future awards to others alleging clergy sexual abuse.

''That's not a fair argument,'' said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Catholic priest and canon lawyer who has worked as a consultant in 200 clergy sexual abuse claims, including the Geoghan case. ''The archdiocese should start being a church and stop being a kingdom and divest itself of some of its property, if that's what it needs to do.''

Sylvia Demarest, an attorney who helped win a $119.6 million jury award for plaintiffs in a Dallas case - an amount negotiated to $31 million - said the willingness of the Geoghan plaintiffs to consider a $10 million settlement is especially surprising because it comes before Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney has ruled on whether to enforce the church's earlier offer of between $15 million and $30 million.

''It seemed the previous settlement was enforceable,'' she said - an assessment church lawyers vigorously contest.

But attorney Mitchell Garabedian said his clients are considering the $10 million offer because, even if Sweeney were to rule in their favor, church officials could appeal, triggering another four to five years of litigation. ''It has been a long hard road for these souls; now they want closure,'' he said.

Still, two of Garabedian's clients made unsolicited calls to the Globe to voice concerns about the church's latest offer. One client, who is among those who signed the latest proposed settlement, said the church had revictimized plaintiffs by reneging on its earlier offer. The client also expressed reservations about the fee that will be taken by Garabedian. Typically, plaintiff lawyers in such cases pay up-front costs of litigation from their own funds and take a third or more of the total settlement as compensation.

''Nobody feels like this is closure,'' the client said. ''It's just opening up the whole thing again. You're just being abused one more time by the Catholic Church.''

Advocates for sexual abuse victims agreed that the size of the Boston settlement has symbolic import that goes beyond the archdiocese. ''The Boston Archdiocese precipitated the current crisis,'' noted A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has worked as an expert witness in 57 cases. ''If the church wants to claim moral leadership on this issue it has to lead the way out of the crisis with honesty and justice. Frankly, $10 million for 86 people doesn't cut it.''

None of the attorneys who expressed concern about the church's offer to the Geoghan plaintiffs criticized Garabedian's handling of the settlement negotiations, noting that every clergy sexual abuse lawsuit comes with a distinct set of allegations, legal hurdles, and personal plaintiff requirements.

For instance, the church in Massachusetts is covered by the state's doctrine of charitable immunity, which caps legal awards against nonprofit organizations at $20,000.

Only two other states have similar doctrines that could affect clergy sexual abuse lawsuits - New Jersey and Texas - according to Mark Chopko, general counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In addition, alleged victims across the country have made clergy sexual abuse claims that fall outside state statutes of limitation. In those cases, the church is not under as much pressure to pay high settlements because it does not face the prospect of a trial before a jury.

In cases that have gone to trial, the church has often not fared well. ''The only real club a plaintiff has is to say, `OK, bring in the jury,''' said Demarest. ''The record of the dioceses in trying these cases is not good. They've gotten their heads beaten in.''

The severity of abuse also varies from case to case. In some of the cases with the largest settlements, the abuse was particularly severe. In the $7.5 million California settlement - reached between Jesuits and two alleged victims last week - the plaintiffs were two mentally retarded men who had been guaranteed lifetime employment and a place to live at a religious retreat. ''These two guys will never grow up and become competent adults able to earn their own living,'' said Robert Mezzetti II, an attorney for the two men.

But the allegations of abuse by plaintiffs in other cases that led to high financial settlements - those in Dallas and Tucson, for example - more closely resemble the Geoghan cases. And Garabedian insists that his clients are not at a disadvantage because of the state's charitable immunity law or its civil statute of limitations.

That, he says, is because his clients have sued church officials including Cardinal Bernard F. Law as individuals, and not the archdiocese, in an attempt to avoid the charitable immunity cap. And all of his clients believe their claims fall within the state's statute of limitations, since they made their claims within three years of realizing that the emotional damage they suffered was a result of the alleged abuse inflicted by Geoghan.

Garabedian also said he would be unfair to his clients if, in attempting to settle with the church, he considered the effect a $10 million agreement might have on others making clergy sexual abuse claims. ''There are so many variables that go into these cases,'' he said. ''Each and every attorney has to make a separate decision based on the particular client and the particular case.''

Michael Rezendes can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/8/2002.
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