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Spotlight Report

Attorneys see cases' scope expanding still

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

For Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the road ahead is not lined merely with the placards of angry Catholics. He faces even more potentially damaging disclosures about his oversight of other sexual predators, the disquieting prospect of testifying under oath, and an avalanche of claims from a growing queue of alleged victims of priests.

In interviews yesterday, attorneys for the three law firms that have been most prominent in filing lawsuits against the Boston Archdiocese said that since late February they have been retained by about 300 people who claim they were molested by priests.

That brings to nearly 500 the number of people who have hired those three firms alone since the scandal broke into the open in early January. By some estimates, resolving the new claims could add tens of millions to settlement costs that had been pegged at about $100 million over the last decade.

National authorities on the issue said yesterday that the surge of new victims extends well beyond Boston, and probably numbers in the thousands. One attorney who has long handled such cases, Jeffrey R. Anderson of Minnesota, said his office has been contacted by over 300 victims of priests in just the last three weeks.

Until now, Anderson said, the Catholic Church has managed to portray past scandals as isolated and aberrant local incidents. ''Every time,'' he said, ''the church has been able to plug the dam. But now the dam has broken. This is transformational for the Catholic Church.''

In Boston, as damaging as last Monday's disclosures about the Rev. Paul R. Shanley were, the church will soon be forced to disgorge the records of several other priests. Some of them are believed to have molested scores of minors, and there is already evidence that they were moved around by superiors who knew of the abusive behavior.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., the attorney who divulged the Shanley documents, will ask a judge this week to set a formal date for the cardinal to answer questions under oath in a pre-trial deposition in the Shanley case.

MacLeish said he intends to have Law's deposition videotaped and immediately made public.

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, is among those who believe there will be nothing but bad news ahead for a church that is reeling, and not just in Boston.

The scandal, McBrien said in an interview, ''is not just national but global. Developments are going to continue to occur, and some are going to be more disconcerting and distressing than they have been. There's worse than Shanley. We're talking about the possibility of criminal involvement.''

He added: ''Anyone would make a serious mistake to think this is pretty much it. That's not going to be the case.''

Anderson, the Minnesota attorney, said he believes that reverberations from the scandal in the Boston Archdiocese have prompted victims from all over the country to seek out lawyers.

''It's clearly in the thousands, the number of victims who now feel it's safe to come forward after suffering in secrecy and shame for so long,'' Anderson said.

David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in an interview yesterday that many victims are coming forward for the first time. But a sizable number, he said, are filing claims for the second time, after being rebuffed by dioceses when they first came forward with their stories.

Clohessy said his organization has been contacted by 250 victims in the last two months. That is up ten-fold from last year, he said.

In Boston, there are any number of dark days ahead for the church. One example: Last month, the archdiocese reached an accord with victims in 86 lawsuits against former priest John J. Geoghan, who is now in prison after being convicted of molesting one child. But this week, the lawyer who settled those cases, Mitchell Garabedian, said he will file suit on behalf of 15 more people accusing Geoghan of molesting them.

Not counting the 86 settled cases, Garabedian said yesterday that since January he has agreed to represent 250 people, most of them with claims against priests other than Geoghan.

On Feb. 24, the Globe reported that Garabedian's firm, and two other firms, Newman & Ponsetta and Greenberg Traurig, had taken the cases of nearly 200 victims since early January.

Recently, ''I've been getting calls from an average of about five new victims a day,'' said Jeffrey R. Newman, whose firm has 100 new clients since early January. Greenberg Traurig, MacLeish's firm, now has 120 clients.

Carmen Durso, whose small Boston law firm has been retained by 25 new alleged victims of 17 different priests, said yesterday that every one of the victims professes knowledge of others who were victimized by the same priests.

''That means that there are many, many others who are not coming forward,'' Durso said.

With so many people coming forward, there are almost certain to be suspicions that some of the claims are bogus.

Although the plaintiff attorneys said they are carefully screening prospective clients to eliminate untruthful claims, Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who has represented many victims of priests, expressed concern.

''There has been so much money mentioned in the press. And human nature being what it is, some of these could be false claims,'' Demarest said yesterday. But she said the potentially catastrophic costs, if nothing else, will force the archdiocese to rigorously scrutinize every claim.

A large number of the new victims in the Boston Archdiocese claim they were molested by one of several priests whose alleged sexual misconduct has been widely reported: the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham, who died in 1989; the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin, who was removed from a Haverhill parish in 1990; the Rev. Paul M. Desilets, a French-Canadian priest who was indicted Friday for allegedly molesting 18 boys at Assumption Parish in Bellingham between 1978 and 1984; defrocked priest Paul J. Mahan; and Shanley.

With those priests' files under subpoena by the lawyers, it is likely, based upon interviews with victims who complained to church officials, that further damaging evidence will soon emerge that Law and his predecessors were aware of multiple complaints about some of the priests, but took no action against them.

Thomas Blanchette, one of four brothers who were allegedly molested by Birmingham in a Sudbury parish nearly four decades ago, said he had not planned to file a claim until his recent treatment by the archdiocese.

It was Blanchette who recounted last month how he approached Law after Birmingham's 1989 funeral to tell him about the abuse. But Law, he said, bound him ''by the power of the confessional'' to keep the abuse a secret. In response, Law said through Morrissey that he recalled meeting Blanchette, but did not recall saying that. He offered to meet with Blanchette.

When Blanchette read that in the newspaper, he went to the Chancery the next day. Law was not available. Blanchette said the Rev. John J. Connolly Jr., the cardinal's chief secretary, promised to call him, but never has.

At first reluctant to join any lawsuit against the archdiocese, Blanchette said he is joining the civil suit with others who accuse Birmingham of abuse because he believes it is the only way to get Law's attention.

''It's time to stand up like a man and do the right thing. I am not convinced that Cardinal Law should resign. But I'm convinced that he should repent. And there's a lot to repent about.''

Thomas Farragher and Michael Paulson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Walter Robinson's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
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