Settlement agreement reached

The Archdiocese of Boston reached a tentative agreement with victims’ lawyers Sept. 9, agreeing to pay $85 million to settle 552 cases of clergy sex abuse. The agreement comes almost two years since the scandal began and just six weeks since Archbishop Seán O’Malley took the reigns of the archdiocese.

Archbishop O’Malley has taken active steps since his July 30 installation to bring the lawsuits to a close. One day after his installation, he asked Attorney Thomas Hannigan Jr., who helped him to settle lawsuits in Fall River, to be lead counsel in legal matters involving clergy sexual abuse.

On Aug. 8, the archbishop made an initial settlement offer of $55 million, which was rejected by victims’ lawyers. The offer was then increased to $65 million, with plaintiffs’ lawyers asking for between $90 - $120 million.

A series of intense recent negotiations, in which a steering committee of lawyers met Sept. 7 with the archbishop for six and-a-half hours, helped to narrow the gap and reach the $85 million deal, which was approved by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney.

"Archbishop O'Malley's personal presence Sunday night at the mediation session was a breakthrough in the discussion and [the settlement] would not have happened without his personal involvement," Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose firm represents almost half of the alleged victims, told The Pilot.

Although he was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting with bishops at the time the settlement was accepted, Archbishop O’Malley told The Pilot in a telephone interview, Sept. 10, that he felt his personal involvement was important in reaching a speedy settlement.

"It became evident that it was necessary for the archbishop to be personally involved in the conversations... because at times your counsel can speak for you, but at other times people want to know a direct answer from the archdiocese. So it became evident, in order to expedite the process, it would be important for me to be involved in the dialogue," he explained.

Father Christopher Coyne spoke for the archbishop after the announcement Sept. 9, when he said, “This is certainly a very important day for the community of the Archdiocese of Boston as we move forward in the process of healing and reconciliation with all those who have been affected by the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of children, but most especially is how important this agreement in principle is to survivors of clergy sexual abuse.”

"We all understand that this is only one, but a significant step towards bringing about the healing and reconciliation necessary for the survivors of sexual abuse," he continued noting that the archdiocese will also continue to pay for counseling for victims and has plans to expand the Office of Pastoral Support and Outreach and to appoint a number of victims to Church advisory boards.

At press time, the steering committee of lawyers was to present the deal to the attorneys representing the other plaintiffs, after which the offer would be submitted to their clients. Alleged victims have 37 days to decide whether to participate in the settlement. The deal requires 80 percent of the plaintiffs to sign on before it goes into effect. The total settlement will be reduced proportionately based on the percentage of victims who do not opt in.

Father Coyne explained that the archdiocese expects that the settlement figure will be accepted by a majority of the plaintiffs. Father Coyne stated that Archbishop O’Malley may personally encourage alleged victims who are reluctant to take part in the package settlement.

"We are confident because it is a very good offer," he said. "The archdiocese has gone up over $30 million since its initial offer... it's the largest offer ever made in settlements of these cases."

"We have made a commitment through this offer to the survivors and their families to say that we are serious about compensating them for what has happened to them," he continued. "We are committed not only to compensating them, but to doing everything else to make sure that this never happens again and to help them get the healing and reconciliation beyond financial compensation that they need."

MacLeish was also optimistic that victims would agree to the offer.

"The response that we have been getting is positive. People need time to think about it. They need time to reflect, but the response has been positive, MacLeish said. "I think that the whole air of humility, serenity and compassion that the archbishop has brought to this community in the short time that he has been here, created an environment that made resolution possible."

Once the deal is accepted by the required number of plaintiffs, their cases will go to arbitration where the amount that each individual receives will be based on the severity and duration of the abuse. According to published reports, victims will receive between $80,000 to $300,000. Parents who sued for “loss of consortium” will receive a flat $20,000. The archdiocese will not participate in arbitration.

Responding to a questions of the legitimacy of some claims of abuse by alleged victims, Father Coyne said “There may be some situations where someone receives compensation for something that didn’t actually happen, but that’s not our worry right now. If a few people are taking advantage right now, that’s the part of the price you pay.”

Father Coyne explained that the $85 million figure was decided upon by members of the archdiocesan finance council, the financial staff of the archdiocese and Archbishop O’Malley. He said that while the archdiocese is committed to coming up with the funds, it is “still up in the air” as to how the archdiocese will pay such a large sum. He stressed, however, that the archdiocese will not be using any parish, Catholic Appeal funds or money from the Promise for Tomorrow Campaign to finance the offer.

He noted that over a year ago the archdiocese offered to sell 15 properties. The archdiocese hopes to account for $15 million of the $85 million through the sale of surplus property. The archdiocese will also do whatever it takes to persuade insurance companies, Kemper and Travelers, to finance a fair share of the deal, through court action if necessary. He went on to say that there currently is “significant disagreement” between the archdiocese and the insurance companies over how much they should cover.

"We're going to go after insurance settlement money very, very vigorously and, once we determine how much we can receive from that, we'll pursue other ways of getting the funding that we need," said Father Coyne.

Loans will cover the costs of the settlement until the issue is resolved with the insurance carriers.

"This is not the end. This is one good step towards bringing some kind of a resolution to the crisis," said Father Coyne. "Compensation is helpful, but the good work that we have already done to learn from our past mistakes and make sure that they never happen will continue. The fact that we are going to continue to offer counseling to the survivors, aside from the settlement also shows that there is still so much work that needs to be done."

The settlement offer may begin to bring some closure to a tumultuous 19 months in the Archdiocese of Boston, which began in January 2002 with the release of personnel files on former priest John Geoghan. In September of that year, the archdiocese settled for $10 million with 86 alleged victims of Geoghan, who was killed in prison, Aug. 23, while serving a nine to 10 year sentence.

Thousands of pages of clergy personnel files released over the next months intensified the scandal and led to the December resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. Bishop Richard Lennon led the archdiocese as apostolic administrator until Archbishop O’Malley was installed in Boston in late July.