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Archdiocese of Los Angeles may pay victims $650 million

Pending accord said to be largest sex abuse payout

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has cast himself as an ally of victims but has been accused by them of intransigence. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has cast himself as an ally of victims but has been accused by them of intransigence. (Stefano Paltera/Associated Press-file)

LOS ANGELES -- Lawyers for more than 500 victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy members say they are on the verge of settling their lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for as much as $650 million.

If completed, it would be the largest payout made by any single diocese since the clergy sexual abuse scandals first became public in Boston in 2002. It would dwarf the $85 million paid for 552 claims by the Archdiocese of Boston.

The lawyers in the Los Angeles cases said the settlement could be announced tomorrow , when jury selection is set to begin in the first of the cases. But they said many details remained to be settled and cautioned that the deal could still fall apart because there were so many parties involved. Also, any agreement would require a judge's approval.

Tod M. Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the only comment he could make was, "The Archdiocese will be in court Monday at 9:30 a.m."

A lawyer for the archdiocese did not return calls for comment.

Raymond P. Boucher, the lawyer who is representing 242 of the plaintiffs in the Los Angeles cases, and his co-counsel, Laurence E. Drivon, confirmed yesterday that a deal was imminent, but cautioned that it could still dissolve.

"I think we're committed to getting to the point where we could get it resolved and announce a settlement. I'm more optimistic than I have been," Boucher said.

Drivon said, "The primary motivation for the archdiocese to settle is that it is substantially likely that if they don't resolve these cases they're going to get hit" for much more than $650 million.

The Los Angeles cases have been particularly fraught because they involve so many victims, multiple insurance companies, many Catholic religious orders whose own priests and brothers stand accused, and a prominent archbishop, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has cast himself as an ally of victims but has been accused by them of intransigence.

Lawsuits over sexual abuse have already cost the Roman Catholic Church in the United States more than $1.5 billion. Each diocese must handle the costs on its own, with no assistance from the Vatican. Few cases have gone to trial, usually because of laws on the statute of limitations.

Settlements are far more common, and victims in California have consistently won some of the largest payouts. In California, the Diocese of Orange paid $100 million for 90 abuse claims in 2004 and the Diocese of Oakland paid $56 million to 56 people in 2005. The Diocese of Covington, Ky., paid about $85 million to about 350 people.

The payment settlement reached the Diocese of Orange in 2004 was the largest to date.

Five dioceses have filed for bankruptcy protection: San Diego; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Ore.; Spokane, Wash.; and Tucson .

Many dioceses in California have been hit by large numbers of lawsuits because the state passed a law in 2002 that opened a one-year window for cases to be filed without regard to the statute of limitations.

Steven Sanchez, a 47-year-old financial adviser who is one of the plaintiffs in the case set to begin tomorrow , said he had been girding himself to testify about the abuse he suffered when he was 9 or 10 years old, and he said he wanted to see church officials called to account in a courtroom. Sanchez said he would believe there was a settlement when it was a done deal.

Asked what he would do with the money, should the anticipated settlement be reached, he said simply, "Where can you take that check and cash it that will make you 10 years old again?"

Mahony announced in May that, to raise money for a settlement, the archdiocese would sell its administrative building on Wilshire Boulevard, and might sell about 50 other church properties that were not being used by parishes or schools.

The Associated Press was the first news organization to report yesterday that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles had agreed to a settlement for $600 million to $650 million, and attributed the report to two plaintiffs lawyers who asked for anonymity. Katherine K. Freberg, a lawyer in Irvine who represents 109 victims, said, "We are hopeful that this is going to happen, but we still have some remaining details to work on."

Mahony is expected to be called to testify in the case that is set to begin today, involving what the archdiocese knew about two decades of alleged abuse by one priest -- the late Rev. Clinton Hagenbach, who died in 1987. Mahony became archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985. The trial is only one of more than a dozen scheduled to start before January.

Any settlement would require the archdiocese to make public its confidential files that could shed light on which church officials knew of the abuse accusations, and when they knew, Boucher said. Many of the accused priests had multiple victims because they were moved by their superiors from one parish to another after accusations arose.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese, its insurers, and several Roman Catholic religious orders, including the Carmelites, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits, have already paid a total of $114 million in several separate agreements -- to settle 86 claims.

Mary Grant, 44, an abuse victim whose case was settled by the Diocese of Orange, in California, and is a plaintiff in the Los Angeles cases. Grant is Western regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and counsels other victims. She said any settlement in Los Angeles would be "a bitter release."

"We understand there are survivors who are desperately in need of medical care, therapy," she said. "They may not be able to go through a trial. But on the other hand, there are many survivors really who've wanted their day in court."

She added: "It's been a long, hard five-year battle for survivors in Los Angeles. So I think that probably a sense of temporary relief that may come from it."