The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


In archbishop's approach, echoes of '92 case

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 8/9/2003

By taking a less adversarial posture and moving swiftly to present a substantial cash offer, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and his lawyer, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., are hoping to reprise in Boston the legal strategy that led to the relatively quick, amicable settlement they reached with victims of clergy sexual abuse in Fall River 11 years ago.

Those who took part in the 1992 negotiations that led to an initial $5 million settlement for 101 victims of serial pedophile and former priest James R. Porter say the key was the willingness of O'Malley and Hannigan to transform the mediation process into a healing event.

George N. Hurd Jr., a former judge who helped mediate the Fall River case, said negotiations there had seemed destined to collapse in August 1992 when he told O'Malley that Porter's victims ''had had it, and were going to walk.''

Hurd said O'Malley's gentle demeanor suddenly turned steely.

''That's it,'' O'Malley told him, slapping his palm on a table. ''We're going to resolve this even if it bankrupts the diocese.''

That resolve, Hurd said, was shared by Hannigan, who was not deterred by the refusal of the diocese's insurance company to cover the settlement. O'Malley hit the phones, looking for money to pay the victims, Hannigan successfully sued the insurer, and a case that seemed destined for a series of messy, painful trials was settled within a few months.

Yesterday, the pastoral-legal team of O'Malley and Hannigan took a page from their Fall River playbook, offering $55 million in an attempt to resolve more than 500 claims against the Archdiocese of Boston. As he did in Fall River, O'Malley has inherited a stalled legal dispute between those who say they were abused by priests and an archdiocese facing possible bankruptcy because its insurers may balk at paying.

O'Malley's predecessor in Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, left the legal niceties to his attorney, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., whose hardball tactics antagonized alleged victims. The day after his July 30 installation as archbishop, O'Malley replaced Rogers with Hannigan as lead counsel in the abuse cases, and has since taken a hands on role in the legal process.

Alleged victims and their attorneys had been infuriated by Rogers' legal maneuvers, which were fair game under the adversarial rules of litigation but were seen by many as unseemly given that the defendant was a church and that the damages claimed involved the sexual abuse of minors. Rogers, who did not respond to a request for an interview, vigorously challenged plaintiffs, but did not go after the insurance companies.

Last Monday, according to lawyers involved in the case, O'Malley met at the archdiocese headquarters in Brighton with Hannigan and mediators Paul A. Finn and Paul R. Sugarman, figuratively putting his foot down as he had literally put his palm down 11 years ago.

Many who settled claims against the Fall River diocese said O'Malley and Hannigan won them over by making them feel that helping the victims heal was an integral part of the legal process. John Robitaille, one of Porter's victims, said O'Malley set the stage by meeting with a group of about 20 victims while litigation was pending.

''His humility and his openness and accountability took us by surprise after all the obstacles and trouble we had encountered up to that point,'' Robitaille said. ''On the legal side, Hannigan was cut from the same cloth as O'Malley. When Hannigan deposed me, I didn't feel he disbelieved me . . . The process became less intimidating. It became more human.''

On the day he was announced as Law's replacement, O'Malley met with some plaintiffs in the Boston case, and some of them attended his installation, saying they sensed in him a sincerity they found lacking in Law.

But many plaintiffs remain skeptical, and not all of Porter's victims were satisfied. Frank L. Fitzpatrick, a Rhode Island private investigator who as a boy was abused by Porter and later exposed him as a serial pedophile, said O'Malley and Hannigan resisted efforts to completely end the church's practice of covering up abuse. Fitzpatrick said O'Malley continued to seek confidentiality agreements from victims who stepped forward after 1992.

Asked if Fitzpatrick's allegation was true, John E. Kearns Jr., a spokesman for the diocese, said, ''Not that I'm aware of.''

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who represented more than 100 plaintiffs in Fall River, and whose firm represents some 260 of those with claims against the archdiocese, said O'Malley, Hannigan and diocesan lawyer Frederic J. Torphy ''showed a real human side'' in Fall River.

''Hannigan and Torphy were near tears, as was Bishop O'Malley, listening to these stories,'' MacLeish said. ''And with these guys, we weren't always talking about money, but how does something positive come out of this, how the victims would feel good about it. We also talked about how we could get Porter prosecuted.''

Porter was eventually sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison.

''The legal strategy was to settle and worry about the money later,'' MacLeish said of Hannigan's approach. ''But it was such a nonlegal process in many ways. It was a lot about interpersonal dealings, and in that respect Tom Hannigan and Wilson Rogers are night and day.''

Hannigan declined to comment for this article, except to say that ''a lot of the credit I'm getting should go to Fred Torphy. He was the lead negotiator in Fall River.''

Torphy said Hannigan's gentlemanly courtroom demeanor, and his dedication to helping the Catholic Church, is due in part to the influence of Hannigan's late mentor, Edward B. Hanify, who introduced O'Malley to Hannigan. Besides running the trial department at Ropes & Gray, Hanify was chief counsel to Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, Boston's archbishop from 1944 until 1970.

Finn and Hurd also played critical roles. John H. Daignault, a forensic psychologist who examined the Fall River victims, said the victims told him they felt Finn and Hurd believed them when they told their stories.

''For many of these victims, the process itself was more important than the money,'' Daignault said. ''They wanted to be believed.''

While Hurd is not involved in the Boston case, Finn is a mediator, as he was last winter when Boston College High School settled for $5.8 million 15 claims brought against two Jesuit priests who taught at the Dorchester school. Hannigan represented the Jesuit order, while MacLeish represented most of the claimants. Daniel J. Gleason, the lawyer who represented BC High, said Hannigan's style is suited to such emotionally charged negotiations.

''He has the right tone of voice, he chooses his words well,'' Gleason said. ''He has the right level of backbone, but it's his style and technique. He delivers it so people don't get riled. He doesn't back off his position, but he never escalates.''

Gleason thinks the presence of so many of the same personalities who settled the Fall River and BC High cases means the convoluted Boston case could be settled relatively quickly.

''I think it bodes well,'' Gleason said. ''If anybody's going to pull it off, it's this lineup.''

Just as it remains unclear how the Boston Archdiocese will come up with the $55 million, it remains a mystery to this day where O'Malley came up with the initial $5 million he paid out to Porter's victims.

Kearns said he could not disclose how or where O'Malley got the money, or how much the diocese won back from its insurance company.

''Bishop Sean has a way of making these things happen,'' Kearns said.

Walter V. Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page B4 of the Boston Globe on 8/9/2003.
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