Mediating church scandals

Process can benefit both parties. But will it perpetuate secrecy?

As lawsuits on alleged sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy proliferate around the US, both the church and victim-survivors are looking increasingly to mediation to resolve claims more quickly and comprehensively.

Both sides can benefit from mediation. But whether it serves the deeper concerns of protecting children and restoring confidence in the church depends, some say, on how it is pursued and how it is backed by the courts.

Through mediation, dioceses can avoid costly court battles, respond more equitably to large numbers of victims, and shape a pastoral response to the crisis. Victims can avoid intrusive background investigations as well as reliving their trauma in public trial, get support for therapy, and gain the acknowledgment they see as essential for healing.

"There is growing interest in mediation for many reasons, not least of which is the spiritual aspect to this crisis," says mediator Paul Finn of Brockton, Mass. "This is not like a regular personal-injury case. It has affected the core of people, both the abused and the true believers."

Indeed, as mediation comes to the fore in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Boston, Cleveland, and elsewhere, many are looking for more from the process than monetary settlement. But at the same time, some survivors and attorneys say that if the timing is wrong, mediation may simply prevent public disclosure of records they term necessary to expose the problem and start the healing.

"One lesson learned from Boston is that full disclosure is crucial," says David Clohessy, director of SNAP, a survivor self-help group. "While mediation offers benefits, there is also a potential downside - that people never learn the full truth."

At the start of 2003, as California's new law waiving the statute of limitations on abuse cases for one year took effect, two lawyers who had been poised to file more than 100 lawsuits agreed instead to mediate with the Los Angeles and Orange County dioceses.

"This is frankly a disturbing development," says Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has handled some 500 Catholic abuse cases. Mr. Anderson is pursuing mediation in several venues. But "it's all a matter of timing. You don't do it on the front end of an issue as burning as this one," he insists. "You do it after the information has surfaced, after the perpetrators have been exposed.... This is a peril to the purposes of this law and smacks of a backroom deal."

Access to records

Ray Boucher, a lawyer Anderson works with on California cases, last Thursday asked a judge to order the L.A. archdiocese to produce personnel records of priests named in allegations. The archdiocese agreed to provide some, but complained the list requested was too extensive, according to the Los Angeles Times. The judge asked that they start the process.

Still, mediation has supporters on both sides. In Rhode Island, for example, the Diocese of Providence waged a legal battle with victims of alleged clergy abuse for more than 10 years. Then last fall, after choosing mediation, they reached a settlement within weeks.

"It was amazing. I felt like an eight-ton weight was lifted off my shoulders," says Lee White. He says the process jump-started his healing - not because of the

money but because of the acknowledgment and strong apologies by church leaders. "They put me through a ringer for years with the stalling, but they finally did it right," he says.

"It was best for us," echoes the Rev. Paul Theroux, who represented the bishop in the process. "It got us past the legal technicalities" to a pastoral response. Monsignor Theroux and the mediator held marathon sessions to hear the story of each of the 36 victims. Beyond the $13.5 million settlement, "We affirmed our commitment to provide for counseling with no limit," he says.

Still, not everyone sees Providence as a model. Phyllis Hutnak, who was part of the settlement, contends that after resisting for 10 years, the diocese went to mediation so it would not have to disclose its personnel records.

Midwest mediation

In Milwaukee, meanwhile, where the archbishop resigned last year, the new leader, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, has spent hours in listening sessions with victims and recently responded positively to their proposal of mediation. Peter Isley, a Milwaukee psychologist and victim advocate, says they hope to draw on a mediation process involving St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., as a model. "That settlement seems a watershed because it is the most comprehensive one reached between victims and a church leader in the US," he says.

All victims were included regardless of the statute of limitations. The settlement also reformed policies of the Benedictine abbey, creating, for example, an independent lay board that includes two victims, and an outreach plan to inform students, alumni, and staff of any new allegations.

For the US Catholic Church, faced with multiplying cases and efforts to extend statutes of limitations in several states, mediation has become a necessity. Some dioceses, in fact, have raised the threat of bankruptcy. And polls show that 40 percent of Catholics are contributing less. "People have this idea the church is a bottomless pit of money, but each diocese has its limits," says Patricia Dugan, a canon lawyer in Philadelphia who represents accused priests. "Some are wealthy and others are quite poor."

Anderson endorses mediation because of what he saw in the St. John's experience. "It was a process of validation, healing, outreach, and prevention," he says. "Many of these issues need to be dealt with in alliances, but only after the heaviness of the unspoken secrets is lifted through litigation."

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