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Spotlight Report

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Plaintiffs' meeting with O'Malley delayed

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 9/6/2003

A mediation session scheduled for today between Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and a group of people who say they were abused by priests was postponed yesterday after the law firm representing nearly half the alleged victims said it would not participate in what one lawyer called a media circus.

Lawyers at the firm of Greenberg Traurig, which represents 260 of the 550 alleged victims with outstanding claims against the archdiocese, said they refused to participate in what they described as a "circuslike atmosphere" that was expected to surround the mediation session. Lawyers at the firm said they had been besieged by reporters who said that another attorney had been courting widespread media coverage of the session at the law offices of Ropes & Gray, the firm of O'Malley's lawyer, Thomas H. Hannigan Jr., at One International Place. The Greenberg Traurig lawyers said they had also learned that in addition to the approximately 10 alleged victims who had been selected to meet with O'Malley, others were planning to show up at the session, including some victim advocates who oppose a settlement.

In a statement, the firm said, "We have learned that a significant number of media outlets have been notified that the discussions are taking place, and that significant numbers of individuals will be present in front of the building. The request for a continuance of the discussion was for the purpose of ensuring the integrity of the process and for the safety of those individuals in attendance."

Lawyers at the firm said attorneys representing other plaintiffs agreed that postponing the session would be advisable under the circumstances.

"It was impossible, the way things were developing, to get this done," said Jeffrey A. Newman, a lawyer at Greenberg Traurig. "We're going to reengage quickly and just try to do it in a way that will allow us to negotiate on behalf of the victims to get this done."

While lawyers at Greenberg Traurig did not publicly accuse any lawyer by name, it was common knowledge among other lawyers involved in the case that they blamed attorney Mitchell Garabedian for trying to attract media attention to the session.

Garabedian, who represents about 130 clients with claims against the archdiocese, did not return calls from the Globe seeking comment.

The Associated Press reported that Garabedian "had agreed to make some of his clients available to speak to the media during breaks in the meeting."

In a statement to the AP, Garabedian said, "It is very important that all attorneys in these matters remain professional in order that we not be diverted from the important work of attaining a fair and equitable settlement on behalf of all the victims." The AP said he declined to comment further.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., another lawyer at Greenberg Traurig, said he had concerns about the safety of his clients, including one who had been spat on by a victims' advocate who accused him of "selling out" by attending O'Malley's installation as archbishop July 30.

The decision by Greenberg Traurig and other attorneys to pull out of today's highly anticipated meeting exposed a growing rift among the lawyers over tactics used to push negotiations toward a settlement.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the session was postponed "until further notice" by the mediators overseeing the negotiations.

"While we are disappointed that the session will not take place, we remain committed to continuing the settlement talks in the near future so as to reach a fair, equitable, and just resolution to these matters," Coyne said.

Other lawyers involved in the negotiations, who asked not to be named, said it was unfair, if not hypocritical, for lawyers at Greenberg Traurig, a firm that has courted publicity, to criticize Garabedian.

Garabedian, whose legal pursuit of former priest John J. Geoghan became the catalyst for exposure of the sex abuse scandal, is one of eight lawyers on a steering committee that is negotiating on behalf of more than 40 lawyers representing about 550 alleged victims.

But Garabedian's tactics have miffed some lawyers.

After O'Malley agreed Wednesday to participate in a mediation session today, saying he hoped his personal, direct involvement might help push talks to a successful conclusion, Garabedian held a news conference at his office the next day with two of his clients, alleged victims who were among the small group that was to meet with O'Malley today.

That bothered other lawyers involved in the negotiations and Garabedian was frozen out of a meeting yesterday of the steering committee that represents plaintiffs' lawyers. MacLeish said that other members of the steering committee agreed to postpone today's session, but that Garabedian was not consulted or included in the decision.

Today's scheduled meeting was highly anticipated, and several attorneys involved in the case believed that a settlement would have been reached. But others had cautioned that the meeting between O'Malley and alleged victims, while dramatic, was unlikely to produce a final agreement.

The two sides remained far apart on money. The archdiocese had offered $65 million to be split among the 550 victims, which would constitute the largest single settlement ever made involving clergy sexual abuse, although far from the largest per capita settlement. But the plaintiffs were looking for between $90 and $120 million, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Carmen L. Durso, a member of the plaintiffs' steering committee who represents 42 clients with claims against the archdiocese, said he agreed with the decision to postpone the session because the privacy of some of the alleged victims could be violated by the media presence and because "the degree of press coverage would make the parties feel they were conducting negotiations under undue pressure."

Walter V. Robinson and Ralph Ranalli of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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