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Clergy abuse cases test L A archdiocese

Looming trials could force a settlement

LOS ANGELES -- After years of legal wrangling, the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese may finally move to settle hundreds of clergy sex abuse claims, after several legal setbacks and the prospect of jury trials in the months ahead.

Fifteen trials involving 172 alleged victims are scheduled to be heard by juries in a six-month courthouse marathon beginning July 9. Altogether, more than 500 people say they were abused in the archdiocese .

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge overseeing the cases recently ruled that Cardinal Roger Mahony must testify in one case , and attorneys for plaintiffs want to call Mahony as a witness in many more.

The same judge also cleared the way for four alleged victims to seek punitive damages from the archdiocese -- something that could open the church to tens of millions of dollars in payouts if the ruling is expanded to other cases.

Legal specialists said the archdiocese's financial exposure and the stress of preparing for so many trials at once could help bring about a settlement before jury selection.

Mahony recently told parishioners in an open letter that the archdiocese will sell its high-rise administrative building and is considering the sale of about 50 other nonessential church properties to raise funds.

"I'm sure they're going to settle these cases. You just can't go to trial on that many cases," said Pamela Hayes, an attorney who served on the National Lay Review Board, a panel formed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to study the priest abuse scandal.

Michael Hennigan, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said it is eager to settle as soon as possible but the complexity of the situation could make that difficult.

"We work on settlements every day and I've been hoping for a settlement for five years," he said. "It would be nice if we could get it done before these trials, but I'm not sure we can."

Catholics say they are relieved that the clergy abuse scandal in Los Angeles appears to be easing. But some worry that the impact on the archdiocese, which has about 4.3 million Catholics, could be severe.

Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and the former US ambassador to the Vatican, said a financially strong diocese is important in Los Angeles, to help retain its large, Spanish-speaking population.

The church is fighting to keep Hispanics in the Catholic church as an increasing number gravitate toward evangelical faiths.

"The future of the Catholic church in America is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. [The scandal] will have an extraordinarily negative impact," Flynn said. "There will be a lot of pain, a lot of cutbacks in services."

In December, the archdiocese reached a $60 million settlement with 45 victims whose claims dated from before the mid-1950s and after 1987 -- periods when the archdiocese had little or no sexual abuse insurance.

Several religious orders in California have also reached multimillion-dollar settlements in recent months, including the Carmelites, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits.

That leaves more than 500 lawsuits pending in Los Angeles and plaintiffs' lawyers plan to go to court on each one unless a settlement is reached, said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff's attorney. Boucher said he hopes that a few large jury verdicts in the first batch of trials will motivate the church's insurers -- long a stumbling block -- to cooperate more.

"We've got trials set virtually every three weeks between now and January," he said. "We're going to be going at a breakneck speed. "

In many cases, the alleged victims of one priest will group their claims before the same jury.

Some trials will involve as many as 40 alleged victims at once, Boucher said.

The first case set for trial involves the late Rev. Clinton Hagenbach, who was accused of abusing more than a dozen people at two parishes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2002, Mahony paid $1.5 million to one of Hagenbach's victims.

Steven Sanchez, one of the 16 plaintiffs involved in that trial, said he hopes to have a chance to tell his story on the witness stand.

"It's been a long five or six years, but I'm looking forward to having my case heard by a jury of my peers," said Sanchez, a former altar boy who alleges he was abused by Hagenbach between 1969 and 1978.