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Church Settles Priest Abuse Claims

Times Staff Writer

Marking another turn in the Roman Catholic Church’s nationwide sexual abuse scandal, two Northern California dioceses Wednesday announced $45.6 million in legal settlements with dozens of alleged victims of molestation by priests.

The Diocese of Sacramento will pay $35 million to 33 people who said they had been sexually abused decades ago. Leaders in the Diocese of Santa Rosa agreed to legal settlements totaling $10.6 million for nine parishioners.

Church officials expressed remorse for the past wrongs of priests, and offered to meet with the victims to offer apologies as well as spiritual and emotional support.

“I ask their forgiveness for the grievous wrongs done to them and pray that this settlement today helps bring them peace and closure,” said Bishop William Weigand of the Sacramento Diocese.

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The settlements follow hefty cash payouts in clergy sexual abuse cases nationwide.

In January, church officials in Orange County agreed to pay $100 million to 90 victims. Earlier this month a Kentucky diocese announced that it would pay $120 million to 100 alleged victims of child molestation. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles remains in negotiations to settle 544 claims by alleged sexual abuse victims.

More than 10,000 people nationwide have accused about 4,400 Catholic priests of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, according to church officials. California has 1,000 molestation claims.

As in several of the earlier legal settlements, the Sacramento and Santa Rosa agreements pay an average of about $1.1 million to each victim.

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In Sacramento, the smallest payment will be $400,000, the largest $4.2 million. The diocese is one of the biggest in the state with 500,000 Catholics across 20 counties.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, applauded the courage of the victims to raise painful accusations against priests they once probably had revered and later feared. He said the big settlements could represent acts of desperation by a church hierarchy eager to keep its own complicity under wraps.

“Settlements of this magnitude almost always mean that church leaders are sitting on horrific evidence of cover-ups that they desperately want to keep hidden,” Clohessy said.

About half a dozen alleged victims gathered Wednesday under the noon sun outside the Sacramento County Courthouse, where the first of several trials had been slated to start earlier in the day.

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All were middle-aged; most were Latino and male. The majority grew up in poor, deeply devout families. Tears streamed from the eyes of some as they recalled how priests had preyed on them in their youth.

Chico Chavez, 37, was one of 16 plaintiffs who accused Father Mario Blanco of sexual abuse. Blanco, now living in a Tacoma, Wash., rest home, has denied the allegations.

Chavez had steeled himself for the start of trial Wednesday morning. Instead, he stood before a wall of TV news cameras and microphones and talked about the church’s settlement.

He called it another “wake-up call” for a Catholic Church reeling from scandal, and expressed hope that the clergy would take further steps to police themselves.

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“They cannot turn a blind eye to childhood sexual abuse for the sake of plausible deniability,” Chavez said.

Salvador Perez, 34, said the settlement marks “just the beginning of the healing process.” The church, he said, still needs to prove “they’re going to actively pursue all these criminals that are out there loose. When that happens, maybe the rest of us can feel more comfortable.”

In a statement, the Sacramento Diocese said it had taken steps over the last three years to prevent abuse, including a “zero tolerance” policy for all clergy, employees and volunteers, mandatory reporting of any accusation to law enforcement, as well as enhanced screening of seminarians and better background checks on priests.

“We are ashamed that the crime of sexual abuse took place in our church and are determined that it will not happen again,” Weigand said.

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The diocese will fund the settlement through a 15% reduction in operating expenses, loans and the sale of church assets, church officials said. Three religious orders -- the Dominicans, Salesians and Redemptorists -- whose priests were serving the Sacramento Diocese at the time of the molestations will also contribute to the settlement.

Church officials said that less than 50% of the costs would be paid by insurance and that no assets from individual parishes would be used to fund the settlement. Neither will money set aside for capital expenditures be touched, church officials said.

The diocese includes 100 parishes and 54 elementary and secondary schools, as well as a variety of social service and family support organizations.


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