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Spotlight Report

O'Malley picks new lawyer for abuse suits

May be precursor to claim settlements

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 8/1/2003

Sending a strong signal that settling the legal claims of clergy sexual abuse victims is his top priority, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday selected a new lead counsel for the estimated 500 civil lawsuits pending against the Archdiocese of Boston.

O'Malley said Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., the Needham attorney who a decade earlier helped him settle legal claims brought by more than 100 sexual assault victims in the Diocese of Fall River, would replace Wilson Rogers Jr., the longtime attorney for the archdiocese whose handling of the abuse cases has been harshly criticized by alleged victims and their lawyers.

In his first full day as archbishop, O'Malley yesterday cited Hannigan's experience in settling abuse cases as the primary reason for the switch.

''It is my hope that Attorney Hannigan's expertise in facilitating settlements in matters such as this will move the process toward a just and timely resolution,'' O'Malley said in a news release.

Hannigan's appointment as lead counsel had been widely expected since July 7, when, shortly after being named archbishop of Boston, O'Malley hired him to monitor the settlement negotiations between Rogers and the plaintiffs' attorneys.

That announcement came two weeks after a gaffe by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who said he ''hoped'' and ''believed'' that the church would have an imminent settlement offer for abuse victims. After raising their hopes, Lennon had to dash them a few days later, saying the archdiocese had been unable to come to terms with its insurance companies, Kemper and Travelers. The reversal was a troubling point in more than a year of frustrating negotiations during which the plaintiffs' lawyers said virtually no progress was made despite three separate cooling-off periods, where most of the victims agreed to suspend active litigation in order to facilitate a settlement.

Rogers and his son, Wilson Rogers III, were criticized for employing a variety of hardball litigation tactics in some of the civil cases, while declining to use those same tactics against the church's uncooperative insurance companies despite being advised to do so by attorneys for victims and a lawyer representing Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

In contrast, when Hannigan worked for O'Malley in Fall River in the early 1990s, the diocese borrowed at least $8 million to pay abuse claims, then sued insurance giant CNA to recover the funds. Terms of the settlement agreement between the insurance firms and the Fall River diocese were never made public.

Rogers and his son declined to comment yesterday, a spokeswoman at the firm said.

The Rogers firm has done legal work for the archdiocese since the 1970s, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese. The senior Rogers has previously served as a member of the archbishop's cabinet, the archdiocese's most important policy advisory body.

Coyne said yesterday that although the Rogers's will remain as ''general counsel for all other matters,'' with the archdiocese, O'Malley believed it was time for a change. In the past, for example, the firm has defended the archdiocese in medical malpractice cases brought against Catholic hospitals.

''Because the talks have been stalled somewhat, you go and try a new direction with someone who is a real expert on this,'' Coyne said.

Coyne said it will now be up to Hannigan to determine what role the Rogers firm will play in the civil cases. Both sides are scheduled to meet with Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney on Aug. 19 to discuss how to procede with the cases.

Hannigan, a partner at the Boston firm Ropes & Gray, did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday. Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents about 260 people suing the archdiocese over alleged sexual abuse, said yesterday that it was an ''open secret that our relationship with the Rogers firm has been extremely strained.''

MacLeish said that lawyers for plaintiffs always believed that Rogers was too close to the scandal, and thus was a poor choice to handle the abuse litigation.

MacLeish said he hopes that Hannigan's arrival will eliminate ''excessive posturing'' and usher in a new ''atmosphere of much greater trust.'' Other attorneys for victims also praised the announcement.

Nance Lyons, a Chelsea lawyer who represents 20 people suing the archdiocese, said they took ''the speed with which the archbishop acted'' as a positive sign. Coyne said that the plaintiffs are correct in interpreting the speed of O'Malley's action, naming a new counsel less than 24 hours after his installation, as a sign of ''how serious Archbishop Sean is about settling these cases.''

He added, however, that the move should not be seen as a vote of no confidence in the Rogers firm.

''The fact that he [O'Malley] is keeping them as general counsel in all other matters says he still has the greatest confidence in the Rogers firm,'' Coyne said.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2003.
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