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A victims' group wants larger settlement from archdiocese

By Eddy Ramirez, Globe Correspondent, 8/11/2003

s lawyers for alleged victims of clergy abuse gather this week to decide whether to accept a $55 million settlement offer by the Archdiocese of Boston, a victims advocacy group urged the church yesterday to respond with more money and disclose the names of all priests and bishops named in the abuse allegations.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley met with more than a dozen alleged victims and their relatives Saturday night at a private residence in Hudson, N.H., to discuss how he could help bring healing to the archdiocese and its members.

O'Malley's offer of a $55 million settlement prompted criticism from the group Survivors First. It urged full disclosure of all abuse charges and a $300 million settlement, saying that any agreement would set a precedent for more than 20 other dioceses facing clergy abuse litigation.

"What we want as part of this global settlement, if it should occur, is a gigantic leap of faith on the part of Archbishop O'Malley," Joe Gallagher told reporters outside the chancery in Brighton.

Last Friday, nine days after being installed as archbishop, O'Malley made the $55 million settlement offer to 542 people who say that priests had abused them.

The offer is valid as long as 95 percent of the victims agree to participate in the settlement. If accepted, an outside mediator would divide the money among the victims with $101,000 as the average payment per victim.

Expressing cautious optimism, lawyers for the victims have said they consider the offer a starting point for negotiations.

But Phil Cogswell of Concord, a plaintiff who says he was abused by former priest John J. Geoghan, said yesterday that he would not settle. "I don't know what my life is worth, but I know that they like to attach an amount to it, and I'm not really going to take it," Cogswell said. "I don't think that's what I'm worth."

Paul Baier, president of Survivors First, said the average payment offered does not do justice to victims, who for years incurred costs such as transportation and professional counseling fees, as well as missed workdays. "I do not believe we gain moral authority by nickel-and-diming victims when [the church has] more ability to pay," he said.

Citing a Boston Herald report that said the archdiocese owns property valued at $160 million, which the victims' group believes could now be worth $220 million, Baier said the archdiocese can afford a $300 million settlement, if it sells its 16-acre campus at the chancery in Brighton and collects $40 million from insurance companies.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, has declined to comment on the proposed settlement, saying that both sides had publicly agreed not to discuss negotiations.

But a church official familiar with the negotiations, who spoke to the Globe last week, said that the proposed settlement would be financed in part by the recent sale of church property. The official added that he expected insurance companies to put up the rest.

The same official said the archdiocese has no plans to raise additional money by selling the Brighton property, which includes the archbishop's residence.

O'Malley has repeatedly said he wants to make settling abuse claims his top priority. A day after reaching out to a Lowell parish where the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham has been accused of sexually assaulting as many as 25 boys during his tenure there, O'Malley also met for two hours with 15 victims and their relatives in Hudson, N.H..

"We wanted the bishop to understand how much hope we're placing in him," said Gary Bergeron, who says Birmingham abused him. "Not just survivors, but the church and the community are looking for a leader, a true spiritual leader, which is what Boston has been lacking."

Globe correspondent Elizabeth Boch contributed to this report.

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