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Opposing Lawyers in Clergy-Abuse Cases Seek Trials

Times Staff Writer

Lawyers asked a judge Friday to order nine clergy-abuse cases against the Los Angeles Archdiocese to trial within the next nine months.

Attorneys for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and for their opponents, who represent more than 560 people suing the archdiocese for allegedly failing to protect them from predatory priests, teamed in the request, saying efforts to settle the lawsuits had stalled.

The two sides, along with the archdiocese’s insurers, have been at the negotiating table for nearly three years, trying to hammer out a global legal settlement that could approach $1 billion.

Both the archdiocese’s and the plaintiffs’ attorneys blame the impasse on the insurers, which have sued, demanding that the archdiocese hand over documents about the alleged sexual abuse by priests.

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“We are not able to get anywhere near the levels of sincere participation from our carriers,” said attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who represents Mahony.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t made, frankly, any progress at all over the past nine months,” plaintiffs’ attorney Raymond P. Boucher told Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz. An insurance representative could not be reached for comment.

Fromholz did not immediately rule on the motion, but said he intended to continue to work with the attorneys “to move the cases along toward trial.”

Victims’ advocates were divided over the prospect of the scandal landing squarely in the public eye, after nearly three years of secrecy.

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A.W. Richard Sipe, a La Jolla therapist and an expert on clergy sexual abuse, applauded the lawyers for trying to go to trial, saying it was the only way to get to the truth about how the archdiocese handled its clergy-molestation problem.

“We’ve got to get the facts out,” Sipe said. “If they make a global settlement, nothing comes out.”

But Mary Jane McGraw, a Southern California leader in Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based victims’ advocacy group, assailed Mahony for backing an order that would force alleged victims to take the stand to resolve their lawsuits. “The survivors are getting increasingly compromised psychologically and emotionally,” she said.

McGraw said dozens of trials would probably yield hundreds of smaller payouts, instead of one enormous settlement, and attract less attention, reducing the negative publicity for the archdiocese.

And McGraw accused Mahony of betraying his promise to come clean and make peace with victims. “It seems to me this is just smoke and mirrors. It clearly shows that their actions speak louder than their words.”

The Diocese of Orange, in settling 90 claims for $100 million in December, released documents showing that bishops and other officials had covered up for predatory priests, shuffling them from parish to parish and diocese to diocese, protecting them from prosecution and failing to warn parishioners. The judge in that case, however, withheld files of several priests who had invoked their privacy rights.

For 2 1/2 years, Mahony has fought turning over the files to Los Angeles County prosecutors. And individual priests recently won a court victory barring the archdiocese from releasing its summaries of the files.

If the cases are set for trial, plaintiffs’ attorneys will begin discovery by issuing subpoenas for the files and by questioning church officials under oath. Attorneys for the archdiocese, in turn, will interview alleged victims and further investigate their claims.

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Boucher asked the court to allow him to begin discovery on 25 cases that he and Hennigan would hand-pick. Of those, nine would be selected for trial.

Three other lawyers for alleged victims opposed Boucher’s request, saying they should be allowed to start discovery on all of the cases against the archdiocese simultaneously. Attorney Venus Soltan reminded the court that both sides launched settlement talks so the archdiocese’s coffers would not be cleaned out by initial multimillion-dollar jury verdicts.

Hennigan said that even if trial dates were set, the archdiocese would continue to try to settle all the claims.


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