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Lawyers restart church lawsuits

Court deadlines cited as preparations resume

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 7/5/2003

Although pleased with Archbishop-elect Sean Patrick O'Malley's professed desire to reach a settlement with victims of clergy sexual abuse, lawyers for those suing the Archdiocese of Boston have restarted their preparations to bring hundreds of lawsuits to trial.

After voluntarily putting litigation on hold for four months while waiting for a settlement offer from the archdiocese, lawyers representing about 400 people suing the church say they cannot in good conscience delay their trial preparations any longer.

''We have undertaken this stuff somewhat reluctantly because of Bishop O'Malley's appointment,'' said attorney Roderick MacLeish, who settled 101 abuse cases with the Diocese of Fall River in the early 1990s when O'Malley was bishop. ''I have a lot of experience with him, and when he says something should get done, it gets done. But we have court deadlines coming up. Believe me, I would prefer not to work over my holiday weekend.''

Both sides are scheduled to meet in private Tuesday with Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney in Suffolk Superior Court to discuss the status of the cases.

The voluntary moratorium on litigation, which was agreed to by lawyers representing 400 of 500 people suing the archdiocese, ended June 28. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they rejected a request from church lawyers this week for an extension of the moratorium.

The Boston law firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 250 plaintiffs suing the archdiocese, this week sent out 100 deposition notices to potential witnesses, including Cardinal Bernard Law and Manchester, N.H., Bishop John McCormack, a former top aide to Law when Law was archbishop of Boston.

Plaintiffs' lawyers have also demanded that attorneys for the archdiocese turn over thousands of pages of psychiatric assessment records involving 82 allegedly abusive priests, including those of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley and the Rev. Joseph Birmingham.

Sweeney, who is presiding over the civil cases, had ordered the records of 87 priests turned over to the plaintiffs, but gave the affected priests until June 28 to file legal objections. Only five did, court records show.

Charlestown attorney Nance Lyons said she hopes Sweeney will order expedited discovery and early trial dates for the clergy abuse cases because the lengthy reprieves have produced little progress toward a settlement and put her clients on an emotional ''roller coaster ride.''

''My best wish is that she would take a case that is most prepared and set it down for trial on Sept. 15,'' said Lyons, who has 20 clients suing the archdiocese.''

Wilson P. Rogers Jr., the lead attorney for the archdiocese, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Boston attorney Timothy P. O'Neill, who represents Bishop Thomas V. Daily, another former top aide to Law, said he expects Sweeney to ask for a report from the parties on the status of their negotiations and to begin planning a case management schedule.

''I am sure that what the judge wants to discuss is where the settlement overtures are,'' O'Neill said. ''Then she will have to start with all these other cases, setting out a discovery schedule and procedure so we don't trip over ourselves.''

Despite the trial preparations, MacLeish said that many plaintiffs had reacted hopefully to O'Malley's words and actions Tuesday, when his appointment was announced. O'Malley will officially be installed as archbishop on July 30.

In his first public statement, O'Malley said the archdiocese needed to ''step up to the plate'' and settle the hundreds of claims filed by abuse victims in civil court. He later met with a group of alleged victims.

O'Malley also mentioned his willingness while serving as bishop of Fall River to confront the church's insurers in order to obtain settlement money for those abused by former priest James Porter. Alleged victims and their lawyers say that must be done if O'Malley wants to resolve the Boston cases.

The Boston archdiocese and its insurers have been unable to reach an agreement to share the cost of any settlement. Nor has the archdiocese apparently been willing to sue its insurers.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/5/2003.
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