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Spotlight Report

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Meeting raises plaintiffs' hope of a settlement

2 sides in clergy-abuse cases reported to make progress

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 7/9/2003

Lawyers for alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse and those for the Archdiocese of Boston, including the church's new lawyer, said they were optimistic yesterday that more than 500 lawsuits filed against the church could be settled after meeting privately with the judge presiding over the cases.

No details of the two-hour, closed door meeting with Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney were disclosed.

But there were numerous indications that prospects for a major settlement, which seemed bleak two weeks ago, have brightened considerably with the appointment of a new archbishop, Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, and his selection of Thomas H. Hannigan Jr. as his personal counsel.

Hannigan, a Boston lawyer with extensive experience settling cases with victims of clergy sexual abuse, was hired last week by O'Malley, who himself has built a reputation for deftly and compassionately leading dioceses in Fall River and Palm Beach, Fla., that were troubled by clergy sexual abuse scandals.

The two men worked together in the early 1990s in Fall River, where they successfully settled abuse cases brought by 101 victims of now-defrocked priest James R. Porter.

One sign of a changed atmosphere was a report by plaintiffs' lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr. that lawyers for the archdiocese had agreed to suspend attempts to depose a church-paid therapist who had counseled one of the plaintiffs, Gregory Ford of Newton.

Lawyers for victims had decried attempts to depose therapists from the archdiocese's Office of Healing and Assistance Ministry, saying that victims were being intimidated and, as a result, were not seeking counseling that had been promised. MacLeish said he expected that lawyers for the archdiocese would stop seeking depositions of therapists in all the cases pending against it.

''Having Tom Hannigan here is just a breath of fresh air,'' said MacLeish, a partner in the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 260 alleged abuse victims.

The meeting ''was very positive,'' he said. ''We're thinking things are very positive and upbeat this morning.''

Hannigan kept his comments general, declining to confirm that the archdiocese had directed its lawyers not to seek depositions from church-paid therapists. He did say, however, that he was gratified that his entry into the case had inspired new hope for a settlement among some victims and their lawyers.

''I am encouraged that people think it is a positive development,'' he said. ''I intend to work very hard to get my hands around the situation and give [O'Malley] the best advice I can.''

Another sign of improved relations was renewed talk of yet another moratorium on litigation to allow settlement discussions. Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who was a highly critical holdout in recent moratoriums, said he would consider such a pause in legal action.

''These are very difficult issues,'' Garabedian said. ''But obviously the appointment of Bishop O'Malley and the naming of Tom Hannigan as his personal counsel has shed some light on the situation and given the victims a ray of hope. It is simply an infusion of new blood, of fresh air, and of energy in a matter that has been lingering for years.''

Garabedian met privately yesterday with Hannigan, who has set up meetings with all the lawyers for alleged victims. Most of those lawyers, including Garabedian, said they will agree to a new moratorium only if they receive some concrete information from the archdiocese about the possible terms of a settlement, including how much the church's insurance companies are willing to pay.

Jeffrey A. Newman, another lawyer at Greenberg Traurig, said he was being careful not to raise his clients' hopes for a settlement, because they have been dashed before.

One of the plaintiffs, Gary Bergeron of Lowell, said he was also not rushing to judgment. ''O'Malley's 10-year track record of settling cases doesn't change the 40-year track record the church has of molesting kids, so [his appointment] gives me no comfort whatsoever,'' said Bergeron, 41, who alleges that he was molested by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham in the 1970s. ''Yet, by all indications, he is saying the right things, so I am going to give him some time to do the right actions, as well.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/9/2003.
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