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Clergy abuse settlement seen unlikely

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 5/19/2003

One attorney likens it to an exitless freeway ''that no one seems to know how to get off.'' Another compares the current state of the legal battle between the Archdiocese of Boston and hundreds of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse to two Cold War adversaries rushing toward ''mutually assured destruction.''

With the end of a voluntary moratorium on pretrial preparations looming at the end of today - a moratorium that was supposed to aid settlement talks - lawyers on both sides of the case say privately there are few signs that the two sides can achieve a deal by then. They say the chance for a settlement is now extremely remote, even as both sides publicly say that ending the cases would be a clear win-win that would spare victims and the church more trauma.

In fact, the sides are still a staggering $125 million apart on monetary damages, and any air of conciliation is vanishing amid hardening attitudes. There are no settlement talks scheduled, lawyers said.

Church officials have reportedly sought a 30-day extension of the discovery moratorium, but none of the victims' lawyers said they will be inclined to agree when the two sides meet in front of Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney tomorrow to discuss the case.

''At this point, based on the information we currently have, there is nothing to show that, if we gave them an extension,'' it would be productive, said Robert Sherman, an attorney for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents 260 alleged victims of sexual abuse who are suing the archdiocese.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say church leaders have missed deadlines for progress during the moratorium, that they now believe the 90-day cooling-off period was little more than a stall tactic, and that, barring an 11th-hour blockbuster offer from the archdiocese, they will prepare for an era of ugly court battles that could last until the end of the decade.

Lawyers and representatives of the archdiocese say privately that any settlement talk is being hampered by several issues, including the financial cloud over one of the church's largest insurers, Kemper Insurance, which is facing possible bankruptcy or receivership.

Even though all agree that a prolonged period of courtroom fights could be disastrous for both sides, Sherman said it may now be inevitable.

''There is a demonstrable lack of progress,'' he said. ''There is a total lack of communication from the archdiocese and the frustration level of our clients is through the roof. Their actions belie any desire to settle this case.''

Lawyers for the archdiocese, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment, but in recent weeks, they have been employing an increasing array of aggressive legal tactics in the abuse cases that were not part of the moratorium - particularly in the lawsuit brought by Gregory Ford of Newton, who says he was abused by the Rev. Paul Shanley.

Ford and his parents, for example, will soon be deposed for a second time, and - in an unusual step - lawyers for the archdiocese said last week that they are also seeking to depose the family's lawyers, presumably in an attempt to discover whether Ford was coached.

In another aggressive move in the Ford case, lawyers for the archdiocese also are seeking to take the deposition of a therapist hired by the church to help victims of abuse - despite the fact that the therapist says she was hired with the understanding that what victims told her would be confidential.

Wilson Rogers III, a lawyer for the archdiocese, however, has said he was unaware of any such agreement with therapist Paula Stahl.

Rogers also recently sent a strongly worded letter to another alleged abuse victim that took the plaintiffs' attorneys by surprise.

The May 9 Rogers letter stated that if the alleged victim wanted the church to consider defrocking the alleged abuser, a new archdiocesan policy required him to file a formal complaint and show up in person, without his attorney, and submit to questioning by the Rev. Sean M. Connor, a church official who investigates claims of abuse.

The letter made the demand even though the victim in question had already related his allegations twice to social workers connected to the church's Office of Healing Assistance.

Rogers did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the letter last week. Church officials, upon being informed of the letter, quickly disavowed its contents.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, archdiocesan spokesman, said that under new policies that will be formally announced next month, the victim is actually not required to meet again with church officials, but could instead opt to have his statements to the Office of Healing Assistance forwarded to Connor and serve as a complaint. Coyne also said the victim was welcome to bring his attorney, should he choose to meet with Connor.

Even though church officials have attempted to divorce such hard-nosed tactics from the settlement talks, lawyers for alleged victims say they send a much different message than the official line from Bishop Richard Lennon, who said as recently as several weeks ago that church officials were hoping for a ''comprehensive'' deal that would allow both sides to heal and move on.

The archdiocese's actions in the settlement talks, the plaintiffs' lawyers said, also cast doubt on their desire to reach an agreement. They said the archdiocese was supposed to have come up with an initial settlement offer and a proposed process for handling victims' claims two weeks ago, but didn't.

The only money figure church officials have mentioned, lawyers on the other side said, was a theoretical offer of $25 million - far less than the $150 million initial number that the plaintiffs have put out to settle the nearly 500 cases being brought against the archdiocese.

Lawyers for the alleged victims said there are practical considerations for not prolonging the moratorium. Preparing their cases for trial will be an enormous task, they said, and their firms will have to make strategic planning decisions on allocating resources to the cases for at least four or five years.

''From every indication, they are preparing to litigate to the end,'' Sherman said. ''We are preparing for that, too.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/19/2003.
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