Local

Newly released documents spur controversy

by
8/15/2003

Archdiocesan spokesman Father Christopher Coyne responded to the release of internal archdiocesan reports detailing the handling of clergy abuse accusations and settlements made between 1994 to 2001. The Aug. 11 disclosure of the previously confidential documents came just days after the archdiocese made a $55 million settlement offer to 542 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Lawyers for victims praised Archbishop Seán O’Malley’s Aug. 8 offer, which came nine days after his installation and over a year and a-half since the sexual abuse scandal erupted. While attorneys were grateful for the new archbishop’s swift action, many said that, because the settlement would be divided among so many, terms of the agreement may have to change before it would be accepted.

"I look at this as the first responsible proposal that has been made to try to resolve these cases," said Attorney Roderick MacLeish, Jr., who represents more than 200 alleged victims. "It's certainly not going to be the final one, but it's constructive and it's worth having a dialogue about."

Days later, on Aug. 11, a steering committee of five lawyers met at the offices of Greenberg Traurig, the Boston law firm handling 260 of the abuse lawsuits, to begin reviewing the offer.

"We've got to get into the nitty-gritty of our analysis and how we're going to respond," said Attorney Jeffrey Newman, who represented Greenberg Traurig at the meeting.

That same day, Greenberg Traurig released 54 pages of Church files containing the annual archdiocesan sexual abuse reports, covering fiscal years 1994 to 2001. Lawyers learned of these reports after Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly disclosed them July 23 in his report, “The Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.”

The files document the sexual abuse allegations received by the Delegate of the Archbishop, who handled sexual misconduct by Church employees. Published reports state that the office received 210 new claims against Church employees between July 1994 and October 2001. Though it is unclear when the actual incidents of abuse occurred, the attorney general’s investigation concluded that no evidence of “recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston” exists.

The documents also show that the Archdiocese of Boston paid at least $21.2 million in settlements to 149 victims of sexual abuse during the documented years. Insurance companies for the archdiocese paid out much of the amount.

Father Coyne told The Pilot that the settlements were not publicized because the policy at the time was based on what he calls a “culture of protection.” He went on to explain this as “protection not only of the children, but of Church priests [and] of people’s reputations.” This manner of handling allegations “treated all equally,” in that the identities of both the alleged victim and the accused priest remained private.

Moreover, the “nature” of the review board and the Delegate of the Archbishop who handled allegations of abuse was one of confidentiality, “because the work of the delegate and the review board was to protect victims,” he said. Even the names of those sitting on the review board remained confidential.

In hindsight, Father Coyne said, the archdiocese has seen that it “did not respond adequately” by failing to realize that “the most important thing was healing” not confidentiality.

The start of the sexual abuse scandal in January 2002 “showed us how far we needed to go,” he said.

The reports sparked a firestorm of allegations that top Church officials, particularly Cardinal Bernard Law, knew the scope and extent of the abuse for many years. Some victims’ attorneys claim that the reports contradict statements made by Cardinal Law in April 2002, namely, that poor record-keeping and a lack of “institutional memory” made it impossible for Church officials to fully comprehend the extent of the sexual abuse crisis.

Father Coyne explained that in those statements Cardinal Law was speaking of record-keeping prior to 1993. He said that before 1993, the archdiocese did not have a clear system of keeping personnel records and this led to “terrible problems.”

"The fact is that there were boxes and boxes of records," he said. "And the lawyers were going through boxes that people [in the archdiocese] had never seen before."

After June 1993, Father Coyne said that the Delegate of the Archbishop and the archdiocesan review board reviewed all clergy personnel files and removed priests who had credible allegations against them. It was at this point that the archdiocese began to keep more detailed records of allegations and compile yearly reports.

Father Coyne pointed out that, when records were made public by Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney in 2002, only 10 additional priests had to be removed from ministry, in part as a result of the work of the review board and the delegate.

The release of these files coincides with the $55 million settlement offer. While some victims have challenged the archdiocese to improve the offer, Father Coyne described it as fair.

"Archbishop O'Malley's offer of $55 million aims to help bring healing" to the victims and the archdiocese, Father Coyne told The Pilot. He went on to describe the $55 million figure as a “substantial offer, a good offer” and one that Archbishop O’Malley hopes “will result in an expeditious resolution” to pending clergy sexual abuse cases.

According to Father Coyne, each victim would receive “on average” a six-figure settlement.

While the proposed settlement would mean an average of about $101,000 per plaintiff — or about $70,000 after attorneys’ fees—lawyers said not everyone would receive the same amount. The proposal reportedly calls for the amount for each plaintiff to be based on “the type and severity of abuse and damage sustained,” with mediators working out a formula with the plaintiffs and their lawyers. The archdiocese would not be a part of those negotiations.

Plaintiffs have 30 days to accept the offer. It would go into effect only if at least 95 percent of the claimants accept it. The amount will be reduced by 1/542 for every plaintiff who does not sign on.

If approved, it would be the largest settlement of clergy abuse allegations since the scandal broke in early 2002. Last year, the Archdiocese of Boston reached a $10 million settlement with 86 alleged victims of former priest John Geoghan.