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hey, it's only money

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 08, 2005

Vision Book Cover Prints

The LA Times reports that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles may be headed to court after all:

After three years of failed settlement talks, a judge Monday placed 44 civil cases accusing the Los Angeles Archdiocese of failing to protect children from sexual abuse on track for trial sometime next year.

The cases are the first involving Los Angeles priests to make it this far toward jury trial. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz's order raises the prospect of the first detailed public airing of charges that church officials moved around priests who were accused of molestations rather than turning them over to authorities or warning parishioners.

Plaintiffs' attorneys have estimated that the cases could cost as much as $1 billion to resolve. For nearly three years, more than 560 abuse cases against diocesan personnel have been handled entirely behind closed doors as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony vowed to settle all the cases.

The action Monday, which was requested jointly in September by attorneys for the church and alleged abuse victims, also means that the church may be forced to turn over internal documents that would show how officials handled alleged abusers. The church has fought releasing the files to the grand jury for almost three years.

Note that it was a joint request by lawyers for victims and lawyers for the Archdiocese that the dispute go to trial. From the Archdiocese's point of view, having agreed to a trial (with the attendant publicity, subpoenas, discovery, etc.) means that the alternatives were even worse. How could they be? Well, ask yourselves, "worse for whom?" and study the following paragraph from the Times's story:

The cases Fromholz set for possible trial include allegations against 14 clerics and one teacher. The allegations range from fondling to rape, and date from 1958 to 1985. They were selected by both sides as representative of the total accusations, both in the severity of abuse and the strength of evidence. Attorneys have agreed to winnow the cases to nine jury trials, which may begin sometime next year. Lawyers for both sides said settlement efforts would continue.

Since trying 560 abuse cases separately would ensnarl the defendants for years and delay justice to the plaintiffs (and fees to the lawyers), both sides have an interest in paring down the cases to a manageable number -- in this case 44 "representative" accusations, of which only nine are to be put before a jury. But note the curious fact that these 44 cases, mutually selected by the Archdiocese and attorneys for the plaintiff, date from 1958 to 1985. Why that particular time range?

As it happens, Roger Mahony was installed as Archbishop of Los Angeles in September of 1985. Therefore, whatever the final amount of the award eventually paid by the Archdiocese to the plaintiffs in the 560 suits, none of the allegations to be scrutinized in the course of the trial occurred during Cardinal Mahony's tenure. A happy coincidence.

How do the figures break down? According to the data given in the Archdiocese's 2004 Report to the People of God -- a source unlikely to skew the figures to the detriment of the current administration -- there were 494 incidents of clergy abuse alleged to have occurred in the years 1958-1985, compared with 25 incidents in the years 1986-2003. In terms of the reports of abuse to the Archdiocese, however, the asymmetry is reversed: 83 reports in the years 1958-1985, compared with 647 reports in the Mahony years, 1986-2003. The reports obviously point (for the most part) to incidents alleged to have occurred years earlier.

Yet another piece of the puzzle is put into play by the Times's story:

In making the request to go to trial, Raymond Boucher, the liaison counsel for the plaintiffs, and J. Michael Hennigan, lead counsel for the archdiocese, said they had reached an impasse, which they blamed on the unwillingness of the church's insurers to come to the table.

"It turned out we were overly optimistic," Hennigan said of hopes that all parties could come to an agreement in the 562 cases without going to trial. "The insurance companies are not satisfied that they know the cases well enough." Insurers were unable to "tell sheep from goats," he said. "I can't entirely blame them for feeling we pushed them a little too hard."

The plaintiffs' lawyers' interest is pretty clear: money, and lots of it. The Archdiocese wants its insurers to shoulder most of the financial burden. The insurers want to fork out as little as possible -- and are, or were, suing the Archdiocese, "accusing Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of refusing to share information about alleged sex abuse by priests, and precluding scrutiny of his activities as their supervisor." If they could prove the current policy holder was in a position to prevent the harms whose liability they underwrote, the claims might be invalidated. Now the insurers see 1) that the plaintiffs have made common cause with the Archdiocese against them, and 2) that the allegations selected to go to trial all involve incidents prior to the current archbishop's arrival. Small wonder if, as Mr. Hennigan says, they can't tell the sheep from the goats.

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