BOSTON – The Boston Archdiocese (search), after more than a year of embarrassing revelations and arduous efforts to deal with them, has offered $55 million to settle more than 500 clergy sex abuse lawsuits, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.
The offer came Friday, just nine days after Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley (search) was installed as head of the fourth-largest diocese in the United States. Lawyers who represent hundreds of alleged victims said it is unlikely the offer will be accepted in its present form, but they called it a hopeful sign that a resolution was near.
"I look at this as the first responsible proposal that has been made to try to resolve these cases," said Roderick MacLeish Jr. (search), who represents more than 200 alleged victims. "It's certainly not going to be the final one, but it's constructive and it's worth having a dialogue about."
The settlement would resolve claims from men and women who said they were abused as children by about 140 clergy within the Boston archdiocese while church hierarchy routinely ignored the misdeeds. A recent report from the state attorney general estimated that more than 1,000 children were abused over six decades.
The Rev. Christopher Coyne (search), spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the proposed settlement, saying both sides had agreed to not publicly discuss negotiations.
If approved, it would be by far the largest deal to settle allegations of clergy abuse since the scandal broke in early 2002. In June, the archdiocese of Louisville, Ky. agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who said they were abused.
Last year, the Boston archdiocese reached a $10 million settlement with 86 victims of a single priest whose offenses helped touch off the scandal. A previous $20 million to $30 million settlement with those victims fell apart when the church said it couldn't pay.
Friday's proposal was delivered during the afternoon by two mediators to about 30 lawyers for the plaintiffs meeting at a downtown Boston hotel. Plaintiffs have 30 days to accept the offer; it would go into effect only if at least 95 percent of the claimants accept it.
Gary Bergeron, one of 54 people who say they were sexually abused by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham (search), called the proposal "a very positive sign," but said it was only a starting point.
"I don't think that any survivor of clergy abuse can be fairly compensated with a check," Bergeron said.
Still, he said, "It's the first time since the scandal was uncovered that I've seen a willingness on the part of the archdiocese to work toward a settlement. I think it's a clear indication that O'Malley came here with one agenda in mind, which was to settle these claims and start some closure and healing for the survivors and for the church as well."
Lawyers for victims, while praising O'Malley for making the offer, made it clear that the terms of the agreement would have to change before it would be accepted by victims.
"It's a step in the right direction, but by no means the end of the journey," said attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 140 alleged victims.
Attorney Jeffrey Newman, a law partner with MacLeish, said a committee made up of five plaintiffs' lawyers will review the proposal and respond to the archdiocese. He said all the plaintiffs' lawyers will gather Wednesday to discuss the proposal.
A resolution to the cases has been elusive since the crisis exploded in early 2002. It forced Cardinal Bernard Law to step down as archbishop in December, apologizing as he did so for the church's failure to protect children and punish priests.
The sex abuse scandal had gripped the archdiocese, leading to the release of thousands of pages of personnel files late last year that detailed a range of misdeeds by clergy that went unpunished by church hierarchy driven to keep allegations secret to avoid scandal.
Law's interim successor, Bishop Richard G. Lennon (search), consistently said a settlement was a priority. In February, lawyers for the archdiocese and the alleged victims agreed to suspend action on about 400 cases for 90 days in hopes that negotiations would yield a settlement.
But that lull in legal action came and went without an agreement, and it took until O'Malley's installation last week before negotiations bore fruit.
O'Malley's appointment brought new hope — particularly since the 59-year-old Franciscan friar had successfully negotiated a settlement with victims of the Rev. James Porter in Fall River in the early 1990s.
"The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and damage inflicted on so many young people and because of our inability or unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors," O'Malley said in his homily during his installation.
The $10 million settlement reached in September 2002 was to compensate victims of former priest John Geoghan. The crisis was touched off by Law's admission that he reassigned Geoghan despite accusations of sex abuse.
But it quickly mushroomed as similar cases were brought to light, and then spread to other dioceses as Catholics demanded greater accountability from their leaders.
At least 325 priests of America's 46,000 priests were removed from duty or resigned in the year following the Geoghan case because of molestation claims.
In the Boston archdiocese alone, an investigation by state Attorney General Thomas Reilly (search) indicated that more than 1,000 children were likely victimized by more than 235 priests and church workers from 1940 to 2000.