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Spotlight Report

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Lawyers, church to press ahead

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

While both embarrassing and disappointing, the intramural blowup that postponed yesterday's scheduled negotiating session between Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse and their lawyers was not a dealbreaker, lawyers involved in the sex abuse litigation and a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese said.

Instead, many people involved in the two-year struggle to settle about 550 claims of sexual abuse by priests made against the archdiocese said a glitch in the final stage of the process was probably inevitable given the emotionally explosive issues, huge amounts of money, and strong personalities involved.

A mediation session scheduled for yesterday between O'Malley and a group of people who say they were abused by priests was postponed Friday after the law firm representing nearly half the alleged victims said it would not participate in what one lawyer called a "media circus."

Lawyers at the firm of Greenberg Traurig, which represents 260 of the 550 alleged victims with outstanding claims against the archdiocese, said they had been besieged by reporters who said that another lawyer had been courting widespread media coverage of the session. They also said that they had learned that in addition to the approximately 10 alleged victims who had been selected to meet with O'Malley, others were planning to show up at the session, including some victim advocates who oppose a settlement.

Representatives of both sides said they are still willing to talk, though another meeting had not been scheduled as of yesterday afternoon.

" This is just a postponement," said Greenberg Traurig lawyer Roderick MacLeish. "The blame is irrelevant. The lawyers are not important; the victims are important."

"We are in a better position today than we were yesterday," MacLeish said. "I believe everyone has learned from this and understands what's at stake here. I think you are going to see a much more appropriate approach and tone from here forward."

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said O'Malley remains committed to a settlement and to meeting with victims to talk about their concerns.

"As far as we are concerned, we are absolutely still committed to getting this settlement done," Coyne said. "As soon as the mediator calls the two sides back to the table, we'll be there."

The laywer who some blamed yesterday for attracting too much media attention to the session, Mitchell Garabedian, did not return numerous telephone calls seeking comment on Friday and yesterday.

But a Garabedian client who was supposed to have been one of the 10 victims to negotiate with O'Malley yesterday defended his lawyer, saying that Garabedian has fought for abuse victims for years and understands the concerns of many victims who feel that they have been left on the outside as a small group of lawyers has negotiated the settlement largely in secret.

"He knows that if you fight for someone, you fight for them, out in the open," said John King, a 40-year-old Methuen resident who is suing the archdiocese for sexual abuse he allegedly suffered at the hands of the Rev. Ronald Paquin in the 1970s.

"I don't want any more secrecy, and I certainly don't want to have secrecy going on with my own lawyer," King said. "I know what I have always wanted in the church, and that is no more secrecy."

King said that while he was disappointed at not being able to state his case to O'Malley yesterday, he had been told by Garabedian that he would be able to meet with the new archbishop one-on-one some time in the future.

Ann Hagan Webb, the New England co-coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Friday's setback was probably predictable given the antipathy of many alleged victims toward any sort of secrecy.

Alleged victims, Webb said, believe that the church's ability to keep the abuse and court settlement secret prolonged the Boston clergy abuse scandal for decades. "It was secrecy that got the survivors in trouble in the first place," Webb said.

Webb said she had spoken with numerous alleged victims since the negotiating session was postponed and said that the prevailing mood was disappointment, but not despair.

"I don't think anyone thinks that the settlement is blowing up," she said. "It seems more like a clash of egos between the lawyers at this point. I am far more concerned about the emotions of the survivors. They are the ones who are on this rollercoaster for real."

Meanwhile yesterday, another advocate for victims of sexual abuse said that Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley's office had agreed to look into whether a group of therapists at Massachusetts General Hospital who evaluated and treated alleged pedophile priests broke the state's mandatory child abuse reporting law.

Susan Gallagher of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors said she culled records and deposition transcripts from public court files about the Priest Treaters Group at MGH and turned them over to Conley's office. State law requires doctors and therapists who believe that a child is suffering from abuse or emotional injury to report it to the proper authorities.

MacLeish, who first uncovered the records, said yesterday that while he was unable to find evidence in the records that any criminal laws had been broken, he was happy if Conley was taking a another look. Conley's spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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