Why Catholic churches are playing hardball

Faced with 500 suits, they may be agreeing only to smaller settlements to avoid sapping their resources.

The expected $10 million settlement of the highest-profile lawsuit against a Boston priest for sexual abuse – an amount far smaller than originally expected – hints at a change in how other lawsuits against churches and priests across the nation may be negotiated.

It could also herald continued tensions between lay Catholics and church leaders over issues of justice and fairness.

The $10 million settlement would be split among 86 plaintiffs who sued convicted sex abuser John Geoghan. It contrasts with the original $15 million to $30 million arrangement hammered out earlier this year.

The renegotiated deal means each plaintiff would get an average of $116,000. But in other high-profile cases this year, 16 plaintiffs in Arizona received an average of $875,000 each, and one teenage boy in Oklahoma received $5 million.

Often the facts of the cases are different, thus meriting different payouts, observers say. But the Boston case also hints at a changed climate.

America's Roman Catholic churches and priestly orders face at least 500 new sex-abuse suits. They pledged in June not to settle any more cases in secret, meaning that dollar figures are disclosed – and that new plaintiffs expect at least as much as previous ones. Thus churches may be getting more aggressive to avoid severely sapping their resources.

Boston's Archdiocese "realized that if they settled this case at the original amount, then all the other cases that came to them would have to be settled at the same amount," so they played legal hard-ball, says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly magazine. Other churches facing the same circumstances may follow suit, he says.

But plaintiffs' lawyers and other victim advocates decry the approach. "I'm very worried that some of the dioceses will consider this a standard," says Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who's handled hundreds of cases against members of the clergy. "Should these victims receive less justice, just because there are other victims out there?" he asks.

It would be "the ultimate penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy," says David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). That is, it would save them some money in the short term, he says, but ultimately it will only stoke resentment and distrust of the leadership.

Still, he says, this high-profile settlement may encourage other victims to come forward. Yet it's "a transparent legal ploy," he says, for dioceses to not make their finances public and yet claim they can't afford big settlements.

Indeed, like many dioceses, Boston has resisted making its finances public, so it's unclear how much of a strain the $10 million would really create. Earlier this year, the church's finance committee rejected the higher settlement, saying it was too expensive.

Both the Boston Archdiocese and Mr. Geoghan have more legal troubles ahead. Geoghan was convicted of sexual assault earlier this year and is serving a nine-to 10-year prison sentence. He faces another trial on child-rape charges.

The Boston Archdiocese – headed by Cardinal Bernard Law – faces criminal and civil suits related to former priest Paul Shanley, who has pleaded not guilty to four child-rape charges.

In all, the new settlement "will inject some realism into the debate," says Patrick Schlitz, a Minnesota lawyer who's handled hundreds of cases.

He says there's a basic calculus for settlements that has evolved over time. Cases where a priest has an affair with an adult female parishioner "typically settle in the very-low five figures," he says. Even a boy who's sexually abused by a priest – "if there isn't something egregious" – will settle in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

But the calculus may continue to evolve. A new civil suit filed Monday in Orange County, Calif., targets church higher-ups. It's one of the first legal attacks to allege that the nation's bishops conspired over the past 30 years to protect priests who had sexually abused minors to "avoid detection, public disclosure and scandal."

There's also increased scrutiny by prosecutors. Although many cases have run past the statute of limitations, new charges are being brought.

More criminal and civil cases – especially ones that implicate church authorities – may mean more high price-tag settlements. In one sense, "We're writing a 1,200 page book" about this scandal, says Richard Sipe, an authority on priestly sex abuse. "And right now, we're on page 5."

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