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Spotlight Report

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Church increases its offer to $65m

Figure still below plaintiffs' minimum

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 8/22/2003

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley yesterday increased the Archdiocese of Boston's settlement offer to alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse from $55 million to $65 million, a figure far less than the 542 plaintiffs requested last week but still the largest ever offered in this country to settle such claims, according to people involved in the settlement talks.

A small group of lawyers representing the plaintiffs told the archdiocese last week that they believed the Boston clergy abuse case, considered by many to be the worst scandal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, was worth between $90 million and $120 million, sources said. O'Malley made the initial $55 million offer on Aug. 8.

Yesterday's offer continued a brisk and reportedly cordial two weeks of negotiation between the archdiocese, lawyers for victims and two professional mediators. But it also revealed that the two sides remain significantly apart on both money and other issues.

The Church offer is $25 million less than the minimum figure given by the plaintiffs, and the two sides apparently still differ on whether the archdiocese will participate in the process of determining how much each victim will receive.

Both sides declined comment yesterday on the new offer. Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer for Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 260 people who have made sexual abuse claims against the archdiocese, said that ''leaks to the press are destructive, not constructive.''

''The steering committee is not going to be saying anything,'' said MacLeish, referring to the six lawyers who are negotiating with the church on behalf of all the victims.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, the chief spokesman for the archdiocese, said yesterday that he would ''abide by the agreement between the parties not to comment on the substance of the mediation talks.'' The lead attorney for the archdiocese, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., said only that he had ''nothing to comment'' on as he left a motion hearing on one of the abuse cases yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court.

The archdiocese's newest lawyer, William J. Dailey Jr., however, told Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney yesterday that ''the hope of the archdiocese and Archbishop O'Malley is that a resolution can be reached soon.''

The hiring of Dailey, a seasoned litigator from the Boston firm Sloane & Walsh, who made his first appearance on behalf of the church yesterday, was interpreted by some lawyers involved in the case as a signal from the archdiocese to plaintiffs that the Church is preparing to go to trial if a settlement cannot be reached.

Other lawyers, however, said they believed Dailey, whose firm specializes in insurance work, was hired primarily to assist the archdiocese recover money for the settlement from its insurance companies.

MacLeish said yesterday that he welcomes Dailey's entry into the case.

''I've known Bill Dailey for years,'' MacLeish said. ''When he says something, I know it's the truth. I always welcome the involvement of good trial lawyers in this case, I don't take it as a sign that the archdiocese is bringing in the heavy muscle.''

MacLeish and the other plaintiffs' lawyers have also refused to comment on their own offer made last week, which, unlike O'Malley's proposal, contains a $30 million range of possible payouts to victims.

People involved in the talks, however, said that the plaintiffs' lawyers reached the figure of $90 million to $120 million by analyzing each of the more than 500 claims, coming up with the range of compensation for each victim based on the abuse each suffered and amounts awarded in similar cases, including last year's $10 million agreement between the archdiocese and 86 victims of the Rev. John Geoghan.

Among the more than 500 claims, nearly 200 are from the category considered by lawyers for plaintiffs to be the most serious, those who say they were penetrated anally, vaginally, orally, or digitally by a priest or another abuser who was supervised by the archdiocese. The ranges in each case were then totalled, people involved in the talks said, resulting in a range from a minimum of $90 million to a maximum of $120 million.

Under the proposal from the victims' lawyers, the archdiocese would be involved in the process of determining the value of each claim. But under the terms of O'Malley's initial proposal, the church would not participate in determining individual settlements, according to those involved in the talks.

Meanwhile, both sides were in court yesterday morning arguing over access to the psychiatric records of 18 priests, in the event the cases head to trial.

This spring, lawyers for alleged abuse victim Gregory Ford of Newton asked Sweeney to order the disclosure of records involving 80 priests who were accused of sexual misconduct and were evaluated at church-affiliated psychiatric centers.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they believe the records will show that the archdiocese had a pattern of ignoring the advice of medical professionals and putting dangerous priests back into parish ministry. The plaintiff's lawyers argued that the normal therapist-patient privileges do not apply, because the priests agreed to be evaluated and knew that the results would be turned over to a third party, the archdiocese.

Most of the records were turned over this month, but the 18 priests objected. Their lawyers argued yesterday that the release of their records would be a violation of their right to privacy.

Some of the priests lawyers also argued that, since priests are required to take a vow of obedience to the Church when they are ordained, it cannot be argued that the psychiatric evaluations were voluntary. Sweeney took the arguments under advisement.

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