Orange Bishop to Apologize in Huge Abuse Settlement
Hours after agreeing to pay $100 million and make public secret files of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Bishop Tod D. Brown on Monday knelt in prayer for the victims of sexual abuse by priests.
“We have done this in the larger hope of reconciliation and healing,” Brown told about 100 worshipers at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange. “We hope that our actions can restore the trust that many have lost in the leaders of the church.”
Earlier in the day, Brown formally agreed to a deal that amounted to the nation’s largest between the church and alleged sexual abuse victims since the scandal broke three years ago.
Payments to the alleged victims will range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each, according to Raymond P. Boucher, lead counsel for those who were suing.
The settlements to the 90 people who sued average $1.1 million each, with their attorneys keeping up to 40% of the payment as fees.
Under the agreement, the diocese does not admit legal liability, though Brown has agreed to personally apologize to each of the alleged victims. Two priests whose actions are covered by the settlement remain in the ministry, one in Santa Barbara and one in Laguna Woods.
Brown has been widely praised as the first bishop in California to resolve sex abuse claims against the Catholic Church.
“I hope that what we have done -- the changes we have made in our policies and our personnel practices -- will guarantee that, as much as is humanly possible, these things will never happen again,” Brown said in a courthouse news conference Monday in downtown Los Angeles.
The deal ends two years of intense negotiations without a trial. Many observers say it also puts pressure on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other U.S. bishops to follow Brown’s lead -- at roughly $1 million per claim -- though Boucher said Monday that it’s unlikely.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese faces 544 claims by people who sued in 2003 under a state law that allows all victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue no matter how old their allegations.
Some who settled Monday will get the smallest amount -- $500,000 -- because they may also collect damages from the Los Angeles Archdiocese and other religious entities. Some of the alleged abuse took place before 1976, the year the Diocese of Orange, covering Orange County, was created out the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
The parties agreed to the deal in principle last month. Negotiations over details continued, including public disclosure of diocesan personnel files, which would have been the basis of lawsuit claims that the church hierarchy was negligent in failing to protect parishioners from predatory priests.
The dissemination of similar church files in Boston documented the transfer, rather than arrest, of accused priests to other parishes, where some continued to molest children, and led to Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation as archbishop.
The settlement, negotiated by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judges Owen Lee Kwong and Peter D. Lichtman, and retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss, “is historic not only from the standpoint of the amount of money but, more importantly, from the release of the documents,” Boucher said.
Under the settlement, Brown, who became bishop in 1998, agreed to open his personnel files to the public. A judge will screen them to remove names of alleged abuse victims, and material protected by legal privileges, such as communications between lawyers and psychologists and their clients.
Mahony’s lawyers, by contrast, are preparing an appeal of a court order that the Los Angeles Archdiocese turn over the confidential files of two accused priests to a Los Angeles County grand jury investigating sex abuse by clergy.
The Orange Diocese will contribute a little more than half of the $100-million settlement, according to church lawyers, who declined to be more specific. The rest will be paid by the diocese’s eight insurers: Travelers Casualty & Surety Co., Industrial Underwriters Insurance Co., Centennial Insurance Co., Associated International Insurance Co., Stonewall Insurance Co., Allianz Global Risks US Insurance Co., CNA Insurance Co. and Ordinary Mutual.
The settlement protects the church and its insurers from the risks of jury trials, in which multimillion-dollar verdicts could force the church into bankruptcy, as happened in three other U.S. dioceses. The alleged victims receive compensation more quickly, and they are protected because the funds are distributed equitably, rather than according to whoever reaches the courthouse first.
With the settlement, the diocese also will not challenge the constitutionality of the law allowing victims to sue for alleged abuse committed long ago.
A financial council of the Orange Diocese, which includes clergy and laity, is studying how to finance its portion of the settlement, said Maria Schinderle, general counsel for the diocese.
Church officials have said their share would come from a combination of cash reserves, loans on property and investments, and perhaps the sale of their 17-acre headquarters in Orange. In anticipation of the settlement, the diocese had already cut some services and a dozen jobs last summer. 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 statement.
Brown has previously vowed not to close parishes.
Monday’s settlement exceeds the $85-million deal the Boston Archdiocese made last year to end litigation with 552 people who said they were abused by priests.
The agreement also ends claims against men who were some of the diocese’s most notorious former priests, including Msgr. Michael A. Harris, Eleuterio Ramos and Siegfried Widera.
Nine men sued the diocese in 2003, alleging that Harris, their former principal, sexually assaulted them while they attended Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana or Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita. Harris quit the priesthood in 2001 after the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses paid $5.2 million to one of his alleged victims. Harris has denied the charges.
Ramos was accused in court of molesting 11 children while at St. Angela Merici Catholic Church in Brea, Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Santa Ana, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in La Habra and St. Anthony Claret Catholic Church in Anaheim, from 1972 to 1989. He admitted to police in May 2003 that he molested at least 25 boys in Orange County. Criminal charges against him were dropped in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court barred the prosecution of decades-old criminal sex-abuse cases, though civil cases have not been barred. Ramos has since died.
Nine men accused Widera of sexually assaulting them as children at St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church in Anaheim and St. Martin de Porres in Yorba Linda from 1975 to 1986.
Widera was facing 42 felony counts of molestation in California and his home state of Wisconsin when he committed suicide in Mexico in 2003.
One of the accused, Richard Delahunty, was returned to the ministry last month in Laguna Woods, after an internal church investigation found “no credible evidence” against him. He is pastor at St. Nicholas Church. Another priest covered by the settlement, James M. Ford, is pastor at San Roque Catholic Church in Santa Barbara. He has previously denied the allegations.
Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg praised the courage of her 33 clients: “You will never know how many victims you have saved by coming forward,” she said.
John C. Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney with 30 clients, challenged Brown to continue to be a “beacon of hope for reform in my church.”
At the news conference, several alleged victims, many of them in tears, also thanked Brown.
“Today I sit with you next to my brother in Christ, who has practiced his faith not just with the money, but I see the compassion of Christ in this man, and that means a lot to me,” said Mark Curran, one of several men present who said they were sexually abused as boys.
“Of course, we forgive you,” Curran told the bishop. “You did not do this to us. A select few did.”
Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.
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