How Boston settlement alters landscape for church

Deal marks a step forward for victims and archdiocese - and may be modeled elsewhere.

With the agreement to pay $85 million to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the Archdiocese of Boston has taken a first giant step in the healing process for Roman Catholics at the epicenter of the worst crisis in the history of the American church.

For victims, it marks the end of a long, draining struggle for recognition, and the opportunity to move on with their lives. For the church, it represents acceptance of responsibility for bishops who moved offending priests from parish to parish. For lay Catholics, it spurs hopes that new Archbishop Sean O'Malley is similarly ready to engage with them in a process of reconciliation and reform.

"He's done the right things in reaching out and acknowledging guilt. And his recognition of the complexity of the challenge to heal is encouraging," says James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a national lay organization, based in Boston. "Now he has to face all the other issues."

Model for others?

Boston is where the scandal began and had its greatest visible impact, and the end of the logjam here may well spur action in other dioceses where mediation has stalled.

The shift from hardball legal tactics has brought relief and dissipated the atmosphere of confrontation and distrust, but it remains to be seen what bishops and attorneys in other US dioceses will take from this example.

"It's going to add pressure to other dioceses to settle the cases, and it also offers a model on how to do it," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly. For example, "new leadership makes a difference, and good legal advice."

The settlement is the largest figure ever offered by a Catholic diocese. Still, with 523 victims, it is smaller per capita than several others, including last year's settlement in Providence, R.I. Victims have 37 days to decide whether they will participate or pursue their claims in court; those who accept will receive from $80,000 to $300,000, depending on the abuse suffered.

At the same time, dozens of victims in the area were not a part of this settlement. "A great deal of work remains to be done in both healing and prevention," says Ann Hagan Webb, of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Archbishop gives way

It was Archbishop O'Malley's personal involvement in a late-night session that attorneys said was responsible for the success. He not only agreed to $30 million more than the church's original offer, but also promised to provide ongoing counseling for victims and to include them on the boards that shape the archdiocese's sexual-abuse policy.

The archbishop also made clear that this was as high as he would go. Plaintiffs' lawyers had requested $120 million, based on what was considered reasonable per capita payments in other settlements.

But the archdiocese faces a difficult financial situation. Previously it paid $10 million to the victims of one priest, John Geoghan, after backing out of a $30 million deal. Dismayed by the scandal, many parishioners have withheld or cut back on their contributions. The archdiocese has had to slice its budget considerably and close some schools. Now it faces more uncertainty.

"The impact of paying out $85 million on the parishes, and on church programs and personnel" is the huge question, says Reverend Reese. "There's going to be lot of firing, a lot of programs shut down - this is not a painless decision."

The archdiocese has said it is not sure where all the money will come from, but it intends to take out loans, sell some church property, and get its due from its insurance companies, even if it means taking them to court.

"This settlement brings some closure for the individual victims involved, but there is not going to be any closure for the laity until we understand its financial implications," says Dr. Post. "I've just learned they've promised to squeeze $15 million of it by consolidation and closing of parishes, and that's going to be very divisive."

Still, the new archbishop has spurred a lot of goodwill, by his humble and listening attitude and energetic outreach to victims. After taking up his job in July, he won plaudits immediately by switching lawyers the next day, hiring Thomas Hannigan Jr., who helped him settle a 1992 abuse case in Fall River, Mass.

Now he faces not only the financial challenge but a lay Catholic community that still has many questions and concerns. The scandal aroused lay Catholics (Voice of the Faithful now has some 30,000 members nationwide) to push for more accountability in the church.

"I tell you without any doubt that people will not come back to old patterns of giving to the church without real meaningful reform," Post says.

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