A Roman Catholic religious order agreed Thursday to pay $24.8 million to settle lawsuits filed by 39 survivors of priest sex abuse in Delaware.
As part of the settlement, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales also agreed for the first time to release the names of 12 of its members identified as child molesters and to disclose personnel files and records related to their placement, supervision and handling.
"I am sorry in the name of all Oblates for anything that an Oblate has done to violate a trust or to harm a person," said the Rev. James Greenfield, head of the Oblates' Wilmington-Philadelphia province. His members work in schools and other ministries from Massachusetts to Florida.
Greenfield said the settlement brings an end to litigation against the order and Salesianum School, a Catholic high school in Wilmington, Del., run by the Oblates, and clears the way for the order to try to rebuild trust with the victims.
"I'm going to commit myself to doing that," Greenfield said.
Attorneys for the Oblates began working on a settlement after the Delaware Supreme Court in February rejected their challenge to a 2007 law that gave alleged victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window in which to file lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred by the passage of time.
Mark Reardon, an attorney for the Oblates, noted Thursday that the most recent incident involving the Oblates dates back more than 20 years. He nevertheless said his clients were feeling "sheer relief" that the lawsuits had been resolved.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victims advocacy group, blasted the Oblates for trying to overturn the 2007 law.
"They'll say pleasant platitudes in public now, but the truth is that they fought tooth and nail to prevent these victims from having any legal recourse and prevent these predators from being known to parishioners, parents and the public," SNAP said in a statement.
Bart Dalton, an attorney for 24 of the 39 plaintiffs, said he was satisfied with the settlement, particularly the non-monetary provisions that will shed light on how the Oblates handled pedophile priests and require the order to maintain policies and training programs aimed at preventing future abuse.
"Children in our community are going to be safer," Dalton said. "The survivors of abuse are the ones who stood up here, and they're the ones who made things better for everybody."
The settlement was announced one week after a federal bankruptcy judge in Wilmington approved the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington's bankruptcy reorganization plan, which is based on a separate $77.4 million settlement with about 150 victims of priest sex abuse, including 37 of the 39 plaintiffs who also sued the Oblates.
The diocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009 on the eve of a series of trials scheduled in lawsuits filed by alleged abuse victims. Under the terms of the diocese's bankruptcy plan, about $23.6 million from the Oblate settlement will be transferred into the bankruptcy settlement trust for distribution among abuse victims.
The remaining $1.27 million from the Oblate settlement will be paid directly to two "John Doe" plaintiffs who sued the religious order and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but were not part of the Wilmington diocese bankruptcy case.
Greenfield said approval of the diocese's bankruptcy plan cleared the way for a final settlement with the Oblate plaintiffs because most of them also had named the diocese as a defendant in their lawsuits.
In agreeing to the settlement, the Oblates released the names of 12 members with admitted or substantiated allegations of abuse. Eight of them are dead, and the four still alive have been removed from ministry. Two reside at an Oblate retirement facilty in Childs, Md., and the other two are at an Oblate facility in Washington, D.C. Greenfield said all four are monitored and supervised.
The settlement calls for records involving the 12 identified abusers to be turned over to the plaintiffs, on a rolling basis, within 120 days. If any dispute over document production arises, a special arbitrator will be appointed to resolve the matter.
Tom Neuberger, an attorney for some of the Oblate plaintiffs, said the settlement represented only a partial victory because it does not bind the worldwide Oblate community headquartered in Rome.
But Greenfield, the Oblate provincial, rejected the notion that Oblates elsewhere in the world pose a danger to children.
"An Oblate of St. Francis de Sales everywhere in the world understands the absolute importance of child protection," he said. "These lawsuits were about this province on the East Coast, and I only have jurisdiction to speak for this province."
Reardon, the attorney for the Oblates, said the province will share "lessons learned" with the worldwide order.