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Spotlight Report

Victims share stories of settling church abuse lawsuits

By Peter Demarco, Globe Correspondent, 7/27/2003

WELLESLEY -- Susan Gallagher settled her sexual abuse civil suit with the Catholic Church in New Jersey, bought a new home, and felt ashamed for selling out.

But for Carol McCormick of Chelmsford, settling was the best move she could have made.

"The priest was removed . . . and I got a certain amount of putting the blame where the blame belonged," she said.

Gallagher, McCormick, and other veterans of sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church met at Wellesley's public library to share their stories yesterday during a discussion entitled, "Lessons From My Civil Suit Against the Church."

Their advice to the victims who have lodged more than 500 lawsuits and claims against the Boston Archdiocese, or any victim contemplating litigation?

Filing a lawsuit is often the only way to get church officials to take a claim seriously.

Lawyers go after money. It's their job.

Money helps pay the bills, but rarely provides true healing.

"If you're looking for the Utopian moment when the burden of damage done is relieved by [a settlement], it's not going to occur," said Gallagher, who settled for $250,000. "What I wanted to accomplish, I did not accomplish. I felt like a prostitute. I thought I was getting power over the institution that harmed me. That was wrong."

The discussion, sponsored by Survivors First, a locally based victims advocacy group, drew less than a dozen audience members. Panelists and Survivors First president Paul Baier said that was to be expected, though, since most victims are either afraid to come to public meetings or are told by their lawyers not to come.

Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who represents more than 100 people with claims against the Boston Archdiocese, said in a telephone interview that his clients decide on their own whether to attend meetings held by support or advocacy groups.

Some of the speakers -- none with claims against the Boston Archdiocese -- had spent as many as 10 years in litigation before settling with their local diocese. Others reached quick settlements, requiring little more than a letter from their attorney to the church.

From their abuse at the hands of trusted priests to the frustration they experienced after years of litigation, the panelists' tales were at times heart-wrenching.

McCormick, who alleges she was abused by a priest in the Archdiocese of Worcester, said she and another victim received a $100,000 settlement in 1997. The settlement also required her alleged abuser to be removed from parish work.

"I can't forgive, but I don't have to carry around with me the anger and the shame," she said.

Frederick Paine, who was abused by convicted priest James Porter, said he was disappointed in the settlement he and other victims agreed to with then-Bishop Sean Patrick O'Malley of the Fall River Diocese.

"It had no teeth," he said, lamenting that the agreement, in his view, failed to ensure other pedophile priests would be removed from service.

For Paine, seeing Porter sentenced during his criminal trial provided more solace.

Joe Ruggeri said he hasn't worried about his finances since settling with the Diocese of Providence last July. But he said he still needs regular therapy, takes medication, and doesn't know if he'll ever feel spiritual again.

"You could plop $10 million in my lap, but that's not something that comes with it," he said.

Other panelists warned of how plaintiff lawyers can scare clients into believing that money is the most important element of a settlement, or the pressure that some victims face when others in a joint suit want to settle.

Mary Ryan of Burrillville, R.I., was the only one of 38 plaintiffs who passed on a $400,000 settlement offer last year against the Diocese of Providence. Ryan's abuser, the Rev. Louis Dunn, was convicted. For her, though, the chance to go to trial was worth more than the settlement offer.

"The diocese put me in the path of this priest. They put me in the position to be raped. They need to be held accountable," she said.

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2003.
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