Looming Trials Could Force Settlement in LA Clergy Abuse Cases

By | June 19, 2007

After years of legal wrangling, the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese may finally move to settle hundreds of clergy sex abuse claims against it following several legal setbacks and the prospect of jury trials in the months ahead.

Fifteen trials involving 172 of the more than 500 alleged victims are scheduled to be heard by juries in a six-month courthouse marathon beginning July 9.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge overseeing the cases recently ruled that Cardinal Roger Mahony must testify in one of those cases, and attorneys for plaintiffs want to call him as a witness in many more.

The same judge also cleared the way for four alleged victims to seek punitive damages from the archdiocese — something that could open the church to tens of millions of dollars in payouts if the ruling is expanded to other cases.

Legal experts said the archdiocese’s financial exposure and the stress of preparing for so many trials at once could mean a settlement before jury selection.

Mahony recently told parishioners in an open letter that the archdiocese will sell its high-rise administrative building and is considering the sale of about 50 other nonessential church properties to raise funds.

“I’m sure they’re going to settle these cases. You just can’t go to trial on that many cases,” said Pamela Hayes, an attorney who served on the National Lay Review Board, a panel formed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to study the priest abuse scandal.

Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said the archdiocese was eager to settle as soon as possible but the complexity of the situation could make that difficult.

“We work on settlements every day and I’ve been hoping for a settlement for five years,” he said. “It would be nice if we could get it done before these trials, but I’m not sure we can.”

The archdiocese last December reached a $60 million settlement with 45 victims whose claims dated from before the mid-1950s and after 1987 — periods when the archdiocese had little or no sexual abuse insurance. Several religious orders in California have also reached multimillion-dollar settlements in recent months, including the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

That leaves more than 500 lawsuits pending in Los Angeles and plaintiff’s attorneys plan to go to court on each one unless a settlement is reached, said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiff’s attorney. Boucher said he hoped that a few large jury verdicts in the first batch of trials would motivate the church’s insurers — who have been a longtime stumbling block — to cooperate more.

“We’ve got trials set virtually every three weeks between now and January,” he said. “We’re going to be going at a breakneck speed. It’s really going to be a hard, fast, furious six months.”

Many of the cases will be presented as “serial cases,” in which the alleged victims of one priest group their claims before the same jury. Some trials will involve as many as 40 alleged victims at once, Boucher said.

The first case set for trial involves the late Rev. Clinton Hagenbach, who was accused of abusing more than a dozen people at two parishes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2002, Mahony paid $1.5 million to one of Hagenbach’s victims.

Steven Sanchez, one of the 16 plaintiffs involved in that trial, said he hoped to have a chance to tell his story on the witness stand.

“It’s been a long five or six years, but I’m looking forward to having my case heard by a jury of my peers,” said Sanchez, a former altar boy who alleges he was abused by Hagenbach between 1969 and 1978. “I’m ready to take him on.”

Another case set for early August involves former lay teacher Paul Alphonse Kreutzer, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for molesting 10 girls between 1968 and 1996. Mahony is expected to be called to testify in that trial.

Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman, said the abuse alleged in that case happened more than a decade before Mahony arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

“I don’t know exactly what (his testimony) will be, but it won’t be because he has personal knowledge of this case,” Tamberg said of the cardinal.

Mahony previously testified at the 1998 civil trial of an abusive priest he supervised in Stockton in the early 1980s. A jury awarded two siblings $30 million in that case; the award was later reduced to $7.5 million.

Catholics say they are relieved that the clergy abuse scandal in Los Angeles appears to be easing, but add that the impact on the archdiocese, which has about 4.3 million Catholics, could be devastating.

Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said a financially strong diocese is important in Los Angeles, with its large, Spanish-speaking population. The church is fighting to keep Hispanics in the Catholic church as an increasing number gravitate toward evangelical faiths.

“The future of the Catholic church in America is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It will have an extraordinarily negative impact,” Flynn said. “There will be a lot of pain, a lot of cutbacks in services.”

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