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Spotlight Report

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O'Malley, plaintiffs to meet on settlement

By Ralph Ranalli Globe Staff, 9/4/2003

After an intense, lengthy bargaining session yesterday failed to produce a settlement between the Archdiocese of Boston and more than 500 victims of clergy sexual abuse, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley agreed to participate in a Saturday session and meet with a group of plaintiffs in an attempt to push the talks to a successful conclusion, lawyers involved in the negotiations said.

Lawyers representing alleged victims and attorneys for the archdiocese met well into the evening yesterday in a downtown law office, raising expectations among some involved in the litigation that the sides were close to settling the Boston clergy abuse case, considered by many to be the worst scandal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

The meeting ended at about 7:30 p.m., without an agreement but with a pledge from O'Malley -- who has said that settling the abuse cases is his highest priority -- that he would attend the next session, scheduled for Saturday morning. Lawyers for the archdiocese also agreed that an as-yet-unnamed group of 10 alleged victims would be allowed to participate.

"There was excellent dialogue today," said Jeffrey Newman, a lawyer for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more that 260 people who have filed claims against the archdiocese. "There wasn't substantial movement, but there was dialogue that allowed the parties to understand each others' position much better.

"Then it was decided that it would be fruitful for the archbishop to step in and for us to bring in some of our clients and have him hear their feelings. And he has agreed," Newman said.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., another Greenberg Traurig lawyer, said that O'Malley became involved in settlement talks a decade ago among alleged victims of the Rev. James Porter and the Diocese of Fall River, where O'Malley was then bishop. O'Malley settled 101 abuse claims in Fall River, which helped create his reputation as a specialist in turning around scandal-plagued dioceses.

"Those meetings proved to be important," said MacLeish, who represented Porter's allegedvictims. "It says a lot about the archbishop. We are very pleased that the archbishop is personally setting aside time to meet with the steering committee and with our clients."

The lawyers did not disclose the proposed location for the Saturday session. Paul Finn, a mediator who has been working with the two sides, is also scheduled to attend, lawyers said.

The lawyers refused yesterday to reveal details of their negotiations, but one attorney involved in the litigation said the effort by the two sides over the last two months to reach a settlement appeared to have reached an unprecedented level of intensity.

"Something is definitely happening," the attorney said.

The Globe reported two weeks ago that O'Malley had raised the church's initial offer from $55 million to $65 million, money that would settle the legal claims of more than 550 people who say that they or their relatives were abused by priests, other clergy, or by a church worker.

That put the sides at least $25 million apart, given that a week earlier a steering committee of lawyers representing the plaintiffs told the archdiocese that they believed the claims were worth between $90 million and $120 million.

People involved in the talks have said that the plaintiffs' lawyers reached their figures by analyzing each of the more than 500 claims and coming up with a range of compensation for each victim based on the abuse each suffered and on amounts awarded in similar cases, including last year's $10 million settlement between the archdiocese and 86 victims of the Rev. John J. Geoghan.

The steering committee lawyers, including MacLeish, Newman, and Boston attorneys Mitchell Garabedian, Alan L. Cantor, and Carmen L. Durso, met yesterday with the lead attorney for the archdiocese, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., in a downtown Boston office building.

If an agreement is imminent, it would be the culmination of two months of intensive negotiations that began in early July after O'Malley was installed as archbishop and vowed to bring a speedy reconciliation to the dispute.

One of his first acts as archbishop was to appoint a new lawyer to represent the church in settlement negotiations with alleged victims, choosing Hannigan, who helped him settle the abuse claims in Fall River.

O'Malley made the church's initial $55 million offer nine days later, on Aug. 8.

A church official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said at the time of O'Malley's initial offer that the settlement was being financed in part with $15 million raised through the recent sale of church property.

Much of the additional $40 million is expected to come from the insurance companies that provided coverage to the church during many of the years that the alleged abuse took place.

O'Malley is planning to get the money from the insurance companies either through negotiation or, if necessary, by taking them to court -- a tactic he used successfully when he settled the Fall River abuse claims, the official said.

The church had initially said that it was making its offer to 542 victims who had made claims against the archdiocese, but that number was recently hiked to more than 550, due to a miscommunication between lawyers for the church, lawyers said. Of the 550 claims, approximately 200 are being made by people who claim they were raped or sodomized by their abuser, plaintiffs who would probably receive the largest awards. Another 300 claims are from victims who claim they were fondled, while approximately 40 were made by parents who are alleging loss of consortium with victimized children. In past settlements, such consortium claims have received relatively small awards.

About 140 priests and brothers are named as alleged abusers in the claims, some which date back to the late 1950s. One church employee, former youth worker Christopher Reardon, is also named as an abuser in a dozen claims.

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