Calif. Church Settles Abuse Suits for $56M

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland has agreed to pay $56 million to settle lawsuits filed by 56 alleged victims of priest sexual abuse, the diocese said.

The agreement is a series of individual settlements with each remaining victim who alleged abuse by Oakland priests, according to plaintiffs' attorneys. Negotiations took more than four months and were overseen by an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

The diocese did not say how much each alleged victim would receive.

"It is my heartfelt hope that reaching this resolution will help victim-survivors move forward ever more securely along the path of healing," Diocese of Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron (search) said in a statement Friday.

"I take this occasion to reiterate once more my commitment ... to insure the safety of children and young people in our church community. I renew my apology to victim-survivors, to their families and to the whole community for the great harm that has been done by those priests who have sexually abused minors."

Larry Drivon, a Stockton lawyer who represents half the alleged victims, called the settlement "adequate and fair." But, he added, "There is no amount of money that can ever bring back the stolen innocence and destroyed faith that sexual molestation by a child's priest causes."

The diocese will pay $25 million of the settlement; the rest will come from insurers. The diocese's portion of the payment will be funded through a loan and sale of diocesan assets.

The settlement means at least 15 trials set to begin in upcoming months will be canceled, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

In April, a jury awarded two brothers and former altar boys nearly $2 million after they claimed they were molested by a priest in the diocese more than two decades ago. Diocesan lawyers did not dispute the abuse by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli (search) occurred. The priest has been removed from the ministry.

About 160 civil suits were filed in northern California when the state temporarily lifted time limits for filing sex abuse claims in 2002. More than 750 civil lawsuits were filed against Roman Catholic dioceses (search) statewide.

There has been a flurry of settlements this summer.

In early June, the Archdiocese of San Francisco settled 15 lawsuits involving allegations of sexual abuse for $21.2 million. A month later, the archdiocese agreed to pay more than $16 million to settle a dozen more cases. Most of the cases involved a single priest — the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard.

Also in June, the Diocese of Sacramento (search) agreed to pay $35 million to 33 alleged victims just before a jury trial was about the begin in one of the cases. That same day, the Diocese of Santa Rosa agreed to pay $7.3 million to eight plaintiffs.

The Oakland settlement is the second-highest in the state. In December, the Diocese of Orange, Calif., agreed to pay $100 million to 87 alleged victims.

Nationwide, sex abuse claims against the Roman Catholic priests has cost the church more than $1 billion.