A Settlement In Boston
The archdiocese agrees to a record $85 million. Will others follow?
After hearing that Boston's Roman Catholic archdiocese had reached a record $85 million settlement with 552 alleged victims of priest abuse last Tuesday, Peter Isely wasted no time. By Wednesday afternoon, Isely, Milwaukee coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was hosting a press conference outside Milwaukee archdiocese headquarters, imploring the archbishop there to initiate settlement talks with local abuse victims. "In Boston, Catholics are gonna start returning to church," says Isely, 43. "But a cloud will hang over Wisconsin's church until our bishops reverse course to follow Boston's example."
According to many victims' groups, lawyers, and church officials, however, such reversals are a long way off. "There have been so many opportunities in the last two decades for church leaders to straighten up," says David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, which claims 4,500 members. "Most of those opportunities have been squandered." Although last week's tentative settlement was a benchmark--in addition to raising the bar for a lump-sum payout, it guarantees church-funded, confidential therapy for victims--the Boston archdiocese was so uniquely beleaguered by allegations that a wave of similar deals is unlikely. "This isn't going to open the gates to hundreds of settlements," says Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Each case has to be evaluated on its own merits."
His way. Since the Boston scandal broke in January 2002, when Cardinal Bernard Law admitted to reassigning abusive priests to new parishes, an unprecedented number of victims have spoken up. The ensuing uproar led to Law's resignation and to this summer's installation of Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, who reached a settlement with the alleged victims in less than six weeks. "O'Malley came to the process with a mandate to resolve this case," says Steve Rubino, a New Jersey attorney who represents abuse victims. "But every bishop has his own personality, his own way of relating to [allegations]."
Indeed, church experts say that most bishops see their own dioceses as worlds apart from Boston. "A lot of them saw Boston as the worst-case scenario," says Jason Berry, coauthor of the forthcoming Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II. "There was a feeling that Law had bungled the situation there." Its reputation as one of the wealthiest dioceses in the nation, with properties to mortgage and hefty insurance policies that could fund payouts, makes it even less likely that others will follow Boston's lead. While the Archdiocese of Seattle announced a $7.87 million settlement with 15 alleged abuse victims on Thursday, mediation talks began Monday, before the Boston announcement; officials say they would have settled regardless of what Boston did.
But Seattle is a reminder that Boston is one in a string of dioceses to recently strike a deal with abuse victims. Many individual victims have been awarded more cash than those in Boston--who will get between $80,000 and $300,000 each--because there were far fewer plaintiffs involved. But the Boston settlement may signal to victims elsewhere that their claims are worth less than they thought: "Even in the worst-case scenario--which is Boston--million-dollar settlements [for individuals] are the exception and not the day-to-day reality," says Patrick Schiltz, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis and a consultant for churches facing sex-abuse allegations.
Still, with almost every diocese in America facing sex-abuse allegations, California is shaping up as the next battleground between churches and victims. There, hundreds of potential plaintiffs may try to take advantage of recent changes in the state's statute of limitations law. With more than one diocese and dozens of lawyers involved, settlement talks would be much more complicated than in Boston. But that settlement could provide a road map: "Boston showed that by getting underneath the legal bravura," says the Conference of Bishops' Chopko, "both sides can reach a resolution they find fair."
A SHORT HISTORY OF PAYOUTS ELSEWHERE
Over the past 25 years, there have been other major church sex-abuse-case settlements around the country:
YEAR ACCUSED PRIEST DIOCESE AMOUNT
1986 Gilbert Gauthe Lafayette, La. $5.5 million
1993 James Porter Santa Fe, N.M.* $8 million
1998 Rudy Kos Dallas $31 million
2002 John Geoghan Boston $10 million
2003 various Louisville, Ky. $25.7 million
*The settlement was reached by Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center in Jemez Springs, N.M.
This story appears in the September 22, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.