BOSTON – The Boston Archdiocese (search) agreed Tuesday to pay $85 million to 552 people who claim sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests devastated their lives, giving victims long-awaited recognition of their pain and the U.S. church a chance to move forward from its worst scandal ever.
The deal is the largest publicly disclosed payout by a U.S. diocese to settle molestation charges.
Finalized after months of negotiations, the pact came with a new pledge from the church to prevent abuse in the future and a sense from victims that the burden of their anguish has been lightened.
"This piece of paper means one thing to me and many men I represent here today. From this day forward I am not an alleged victim of clergy abuse. I am recognized, I'm a survivor," said Gary Bergeron, who sued for molestation by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham.
Under the agreement, victims will receive awards ranging from $80,000 to $300,000. Award amounts will be decided by a mediator, based on the type of molestation, the duration of the abuse, and the injury suffered.
Parents who filed lawsuits claiming their children were abused will receive $20,000.
The church also will provide for psychological counseling for victims for as long as they want it, and will put some victims on advisory boards monitoring the abuse problem.
Boston's new archbishop, Sean O'Malley (search), was in Washington at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (search) as the deal was struck but sat in on critical negotiations over the weekend.
"It's a good day for the archdiocese," said his spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne. "We haven't had too many over the last couple of years, but this is one."
The archdiocese also released a statement saying in part that it is "committed to doing everything humanly possible to make sure that this never occurs again. Our prayer is that this may, with the help of God, become a reality."
Coyne said the church is still looking for ways to finance the settlement. Possible revenue sources include selling off surplus property and suing the archdiocese's insurance carriers.
The deal came about a month after the archdiocese put a $55 million offer on the table. Plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for as much as $120 million. Attorneys for the two sides and O'Malley, considered a steady but forceful voice in the negotiations, met in a lengthy session Sunday that stretched into Monday morning.
Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer with the firm that represents nearly half of the alleged victims, said the $85 million offer was accepted after considering the archdiocese's financial condition and the additional stress a trial would put on victims.
"There comes a point where they (the archdiocese) just financially can't do anything anymore," MacLeish said. "We could continue in litigation with the archdiocese for years and years and years, but would there be positive results?"
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the national bishops' conference, said the deal "demonstrates that the church is committed to working out just settlements."
A resolution had been elusive since the scandal exploded in January 2002 with the release of court documents in the case of the Rev. John Geoghan (search), who church leaders moved from parish to parish despite evidence he had molested children.
Allegations against dozens of other priests soon came to light, and hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the archdiocese.
Priest personnel files, made public because of the suits, held shocking allegations: that a priest pulled boys out of religious classes and raped them in a confessional; that another fathered two children and left the children's mother alone as she overdosed; that another seduced girls studying to become nuns by telling them he was "the second coming of Christ."
The crisis put every U.S. diocese under new scrutiny.
Because of molestation claims, at least 325 of America's 46,000 priests were removed from duty or resigned in the year following the Geoghan case. And Cardinal Bernard Law (search) resigned as Boston archbishop in December, giving up his post as spiritual leader to 2.1 million Catholics because of his mishandling of abuse cases.
Stephen Pope, a theology professor at Boston College, predicted it will take a generation before the church recovers from the scandal. But he said the settlement may help restore confidence among Catholics.
"The whole country has been waiting for Boston to resolve this question, waiting for Boston to set an example," he said.
While the settlement is by far the biggest publicly disclosed payout made by the U.S. church, the amount of compensation per person may be smaller than what some individuals have received in other cases. The most comparable deal came in June, when the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people.
Criminal charges were filed against some priests as a result of the Boston scandal, but Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly said no church leaders could be charged for supervisory lapses under weak child protection laws in effect at the time.
Reilly, in a report issued in July after a 16-month investigation, estimated that more than 1,000 children were likely victimized by more than 235 priests from 1940 to 2000.
In September 2002, the archdiocese agreed to a $10 million settlement for 86 victims of Geoghan, who was ousted from the priesthood and sentenced to prison for child molestation. Geoghan, 68, was killed last month in prison, allegedly by another inmate who authorities say plotted the attack for more than a month.
The appointment of O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar known for helping other dioceses recover from sex abuse scandals, brought new hope to the stalled settlement talks. He quickly shook up the church's legal team and made an offer.
"He has come together with us to work out a resolution of these cases, and he's done it with humanity, he's done it with compassion," MacLeish said.