Boston Archdiocese Parishioners Questions Victims' Settlement

Parishoners interrogates how church will pay
Sep 25, 2003 06:35 PM EDT

Nearly two years after the first public accusations of sexual abuse by its priests, the Boston Archdiocese has agreed to pay up to $85 million to settle more than 500 lawsuits with alleged victims out of court. It's believed to be the largest settlement paid by a Catholic Diocese in the U.S. The alleged victims welcomed the agreement. But, the Church is not sure where the money will come from

The nation's fourth largest archdiocese is widely thought to be one of the wealthiest. But since the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke almost two years ago, weekly donations are down, as are contributions to the annual appeal, and the Archdiocese has been forced to cut its operating budget by up to 60 percent. Now, it must come up with $85 million to settle the hundreds of sexual abuse lawsuits.

One place it isn't going to come from, say church officials, is the parish collection basket.

"I'm sure a lot of people don't believe that and that's why they've stopped coming, collections are down," said Margery Draper, a parishioner at St. Margaret's in Boston. "But I'm hoping they'll come back because the church needs a lot of work."

Like many inner city parishes, St. Margaret's struggles to maintain its building and pay its bills. But paying for past sins is important, as well, according to attorney Eric Macleish, who represents more than 260 people suing the Church. He says the agreement means the Church will no longer be able to keep allegations of abuse secret.

"What we've accomplished in Boston, where we are the epicenter, will be something that will resonate literally for generations so that children will never again be knowingly exposed to people who desire to commit deviant acts on them," said Mr. Macleish.

Alleged victims of clergy abuse, like Orlin Horne, say the settlement means the Church acknowledges the abuse happened.

"Let this be an example, let this be an opportunity for a true understanding of the effects of sexual abuse on minors and what it does to the fabric of our society," said Orlin Horne. "I know what it's done to my life. I know what it's done to my family."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have until mid-October to have their clients choose whether or not to accept the settlement. If fewer than 80% of sign onto the agreement, the total amount will have to be re-negotiated. Church spokesman Father Christopher Coyne says the Archdiocese will pay the settlement by first taking out a loan. Then it will repay the loan by selling property and trying to collect on insurance policies.

"We are going to go after insurance settlement money very, very vigorously and once we determine how much we can receive from that, we'll proceed to other ways of getting the funding that we need," he said.

If the Archdiocese sues the insurance carriers to force them to pay, it could be a difficult case, according to Tom Peish, a trial lawyer who specializes in defending insurance companies.

"Typically insurance contracts like this have exclusions in them for intentional behavior, for criminal behavior, and it sounds to me - I don't have first hand knowledge of this - it sounds to me as if the insurers are confident of their ability to persuade the courts that the underlying conduct here was intentional and criminal the insurers have no obligation to defend it," he said.

Church officials hope that their efforts to pay the settlement through property sales and insurance coverage might restore the trust of Boston's 2 million Catholics. Father Nick Ciccone of St. Margaret's says he sees their distrust written on donation checks.

"I know first hand no parish funds are being used because those are funds that I administer but we still will get people making donations through their offertory that write on their checks for 'Parish Use Only,' with exclamation points," he explained.

Father Ciccone says while his parishioners tell him they don't want to pay for the settlement, they are relieved the Church has finally come to an agreement with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"Well, I'm just glad it was settled and I hope the people themselves will get some inner peace to be able to go on with their lives," said a woman. "Once this is over, I truly believe it's going to be a long healing process, but it's really going to make the Church stronger," commented a man.

"I don't think we should have had to settle for that amount of money because I have great question as to the legitimacy of these alleged abuse charges," said another woman.

The settlement comes about six weeks after Father Sean O'Malley was installed as Archbishop of Boston. His predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, resigned in disgrace over his handling of the clergy abuse scandal. Attorneys say they're confident an overwhelming majority of their clients will choose to take the money rather than take the Church to court.