Why Catholic Churches Are Playing Hardball ; Faced with 500 Suits, They May Be Agreeing Only to Smaller Settlements to Avoid Sapping Their Resources

Article excerpt

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. …