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O.C. Diocese Settles Abuse Cases

Times Staff Writers

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange agreed Thursday to settle claims by 87 people who said they were sexually abused by priests and other church employees, promising a sum that sources said would exceed the $85 million record payment by an American diocese.

The specifics of the settlement were not disclosed under the terms of a court-imposed gag order. Some details remain to be worked out, according to a statement issued by both sides.

The record settlement is likely to influence the money that may be paid to thousands of plaintiffs in pending cases in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown called the agreement “both fair and compassionate.” He said he planned to write a letter to each victim “personally seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.”

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“We will be able to fairly compensate the victims in a way that allows our church to continue its ministry of service to the entire community,” Brown said immediately after the announcement shortly after 11 p.m. at the civil courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

“It’s over. It’s over. It’s all over,” sobbed David Guerrero, 36, who hugged Brown and shook his hand after the announcement. Guerrero was molested by Father Siegfried Widera, a now-dead priest who had been convicted of abusing a boy in Milwaukee before being transferred to Orange County.

Guerrero was one of about a dozen plaintiffs who had camped out in the hallway during the negotiations, toting blankets and pillows.

Max Fisher was 13 when he was molested by Widera.

“I want a new beginning,” said Fisher, 40, who held his crying wife in his arms. “I want to be able to put this behind me. I’m tired of the nightmares.”

The settlement will be paid without bankrupting the diocese or requiring any of its 56 parishes to be closed, church officials said.

Maria Schinderle, general counsel for the diocese, said the sale of some property, as well as cash reserves, staff cuts and loans secured with church assets would raise the funds for the diocese’s share of the settlement. The one major piece of property that is not a parish or school and is eligible to be sold is the diocese’s 17-acre headquarters in Orange.

The deal settles allegations of molestation against 30 clergymen and about a dozen other church employees, with some cases dating back as far as the 1930s.

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The previous record amount was paid in 2003 by the Archdiocese of Boston to settle more than 500 abuse cases.

The amount of that settlement was held down by a Massachusetts law that strictly limits the amount of damages a charitable organization such as a church can be required to pay in a lawsuit. California has no similar limit.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, likely to be the most directly affected by Orange County’s settlement, is negotiating with its insurers and plaintiffs’ lawyers over roughly 500 sexual abuse claims.

“It’s like a market is being established for [clergy abuse] settlements, and the price can go up or down,” said Loyola Law School professor Georgene Vairo.

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In September, J. Michael Hennigan, the lead attorney for Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, said some of the cases he was handling “will just break your heart.”

At the time, Hennigan said he guessed that the 50 worst cases alone could each potentially lead to jury awards of $5 million or more.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Diocese of Orange will share the cost of the settlement with eight insurance companies.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys -- who may keep up to 40% of the payment as fees -- had the task of dividing the money among their clients. Individual awards were determined based on the facts of each case, attorneys said.

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The diocese had a $171-million investment portfolio and $23.4 million in cash reserves at the end of the 2003 fiscal year, according to its financial statements.

Last year, the diocese spent $17 million for land to be used to build a cathedral in Santa Ana but suspended fundraising for the complex until the sexual abuse cases were resolved. Over the last several years, the diocese has cut services and personnel, in part because of the pending negotiations.

In addition to the payment of money, Brown agreed to let the court decide if any confidential personnel files of accused priests would be made public. The diocese had previously given those files to plaintiffs’ attorneys under an agreement that they would remain secret until the cases were resolved.

Releasing those documents was a key demand of some of the plaintiffs.

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The agreement in the Orange County cases was reached in a Los Angeles Superior courthouse nearly six hours after Brown arrived unexpectedly at the court, coming up a back stairwell minutes before the doors were locked at 5 p.m.

Attorneys for the diocese and its insurers had met for 27 hours of negotiations with plaintiffs attorneys this week.

As they waited, many plaintiffs met for the first time, tearfully sharing their stories.

“I hope it’s cases like these that let people come out and talk about their molestation, because silence kills. It almost killed me and left my three children orphans,” Edward Landry, 36, of Plano, Texas, said as he waited for a settlement to be reached.

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“My parents’ blind faith, trust and confidence in the church got me into this situation, and [their] same blind faith, trust and confidence got me out,” he said.

Landry sued over his claim of abuse by Eleuterio Ramos, who admitted to sexually abusing at least 25 boys during a decade-long tenure as a parish priest in the diocese. Ramos is now dead.

Landry, who was an 8-year-old altar boy when the abuse began, said that as a settlement grew more likely, he began to forgive those who had hurt him years ago. Six weeks ago the former Marine said he forgave Ramos. A week ago he said he made peace with God. On Sunday, for the first time in many years, he received communion.

In addition to Ramos, many of the priests were involved in multiple molestation cases.

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One of the former priests involved in the cases, John Lenihan, allegedly paid for an abortion for a teenager he impregnated when he was her parish priest in the 1970s. In a letter to Pope John Paul II in 2002 asking to be released from the priesthood, Lenihan admitted to two sexual relationships with teenage girls starting in 1978.

The Los Angeles and Orange dioceses previously had paid $1.2 million to settle one case against Lenihan. Overall, the Orange County diocese already has paid $4.6 million to victims and $66,000 for counseling to victims and their families.

Thirty of the plaintiffs who agreed to settle also have claims against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Those cases predate 1976, when the separate O.C. diocese was created.

Over the course of settlement talks, Brown publicly weighed the need to protect the church financially against his responsibility to serve those who had been hurt.

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In June, he warned his parishioners that a large settlement was likely.

“The window of opportunity to settle these cases through mediation is closing,” he said in a letter to parishes. “If we do not settle, we will proceed to costly, time-consuming trials where the outcomes are unpredictable. Recent experience has shown that juries in California can often be swayed by erroneous misconceptions about our church’s response to this crisis.”

The cases were filed last year under a special state law that opened the way for litigation against the Catholic church and other institutions that allegedly had failed to protect children from those they had reason to believe were predators. The law gave alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse one year to sue no matter how old the case.

Some church officials have argued the extension unfairly targeted Catholic churches in California by forcing church officials to defend old claims, in some instances involving witnesses who are now dead or files that have long since been discarded.

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Before the law was enacted, victims of childhood sexual abuse had been barred from suing in molestation cases after their 26th birthday or more than three years after discovering that their emotional problems were linked to molestation.

By settling the cases before trial, the Diocese of Orange gave up its right to challenge the law which allowed the suits. The Los Angeles archdiocese, along with other dioceses being sued under that law, have sought to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Times staff writer Nita Lelyveld contributed to this report.


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