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Spotlight Report

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Church, victims reach deal in N.H.

$6.5m agreement ends 61 more abuse claims

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 5/23/2003

In an agreement that ends nearly all the remaining sex abuse lawsuits filed against the Catholic Church in New Hampshire, the Diocese of Manchester will pay $6.5 million to settle 61 civil claims brought by people who allege they were sexually abused by clergy.

The diocese has now agreed to pay a total of $15.5 million to settle 176 abuse claims, largely resolving its legal problems stemming from the nationwide sex abuse scandal.

The agreement was reached as church leaders and alleged victims elsewhere, including Boston, appear unable to resolve hundreds of lawsuits short of trial. Yesterday, in an effort to reach a settlement of 500 lawsuits filed against the Archdiocese of Boston, Bishop Richard G. Lennon appealed for a 30-day extension of a cooling-off period that ended earlier this week.

A lawyer from the Boston law firm representing about 250 alleged victims suing the archdiocese said he would support an extension of the moratorium, given Lennon's personal appeal.

''I am going to be recommending a stand-down based on the fact that Bishop Lennon has come forward himself with not only his personal involvement, but his commitment that the archdiocese intends on resolving these claims,'' said lawyer Jeffrey Newman of the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig.

The chancellor of the Manchester Diocese, the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, said yesterday that the overarching principle in reaching a settlement ''was wanting to bring people to the Lord.''

''I am hopeful for the future of the church in New Hampshire,'' Arsenault said.

Still, victims' advocates said Bishop John McCormack's refusal to resign for his handling of abusive priests remains a major impediment to true reconciliation.

''I just hope that the pressure from the community will force the bishop to resign now that a substantial amount of the cases are over,'' said Mark Abramson, an attorney for victims.

In a statement yesterday, McCormack said he was ''personally sorry for the hurt [the victims] have experienced,'' and said he has written to each one ''expressing my deep regret.'' A handful of cases remain unresolved.

The Manchester Diocese has also resolved its potential problems under criminal law. Last December, the diocese became the first in the country to admit it may have violated criminal law by failing to protect children from sexually abusive priests. Facing an imminent indictment of the diocese, McCormack signed a legal agreement with the state acknowledging that the New Hampshire attorney general's office had sufficient evidence to win convictions.

In announcing yesterday's civil settlement, both sides said they were glad to have achieved a central goal: avoiding years of bitter litigation that could cause lasting and perhaps irreparable harm to the church and victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Attorneys for victims and the church said the key to success was focusing on settlement - rather than trials - from the beginning. That approach, they said, built trust among the church, attorneys for the plaintiffs, and the victims themselves. It also helped that the Manchester Diocese had cooperative insurance carriers, lawyers for both sides said.

Ovide Lamontagne, an attorney who represented the diocese, said McCormack and other church leaders not only told their lawyers to push for a speedy settlement, but also to act more ''pastorally'' than litigiously. That meant that lawyers could not employ hard-edged legal tactics; court filings had to be moderate in tone so as not to poison settlement talks.

''That is not typical in terms of client requests,'' Lamontagne said.

Arsenault said that while the church was aware of its legal rights and prepared to defend them if need be, litigating was a last resort. ''It was not lost on us that our legal defenses, while legitimate, were distasteful to many people,'' he said. ''What it reads as is that ... victims are coming forward and that the church doesn't want to help them. While that's not necessarily the case, that's what it looks like.''

Peter Hutchins, a Manchester attorney for other plaintiffs whose firm has already settled 79 cases with the diocese for $6.8 million, said settlement talks were also helped when victims and church leaders were able to agree on a single framework for paying claims that focused exclusively on the type and severity of abuse committed by the priest, rather than trying to put a dollar figure on the psychological damage suffered by each plaintiff.

''That way, regardless of the money, each of our clients know that they were treated fairly with regard to every other client,'' Hutchins said.

The settlement in New Hampshire is in sharp contrast to the situation involving the Archdiocese of Boston, where a 90-day cooling-off period expired this week without progress toward a settlement.

Lawyers for plaintiffs have accused the church of taking a much harder line since the initial $10 million settlement, eight months ago, of 86 cases involving defrocked priest John Geoghan.

Material from the Associated Press was also used in this article.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/23/2003.
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