Distrust Threatens Clergy Talks

By Ashbel S. Green
The Oregonian [Portland OR]
February 16, 2003

Somewhere in Portland next week, two mediators will begin trying to find peace between the Catholic Church and more than 100 people who say they were molested by its priests.

It won't be easy.

Mediation is a mainstay of the civil litigation system. Most cases, even bitter disputes involving family businesses, reach a compromise rather than go to trial.

But lawyers around the country say settlement talks between the Catholic Church and priest accusers are completely different.

Those who claim they were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests, for example, say they want far more than financial compensation. They want contrition and public apologies.

But in settlements reached around the country, few feel they have gotten it.

"I see no reason to believe that there is an honest feeling of sorrow for the people who have been abused," said Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas attorney who in 1997 won a $120 million verdict that was later settled for $31 million.

"They are sorry for the controversy," she said. "They're sorry that their sins have been exposed. But a true feeling of sorrow and caring for the victims? I've really seen very little of that."

Church officials say a torrent of lawsuits threatens to bankrupt dioceses around the nation, and they accuse plaintiffs' attorneys of greedily pushing for big payoffs.

Some "plaintiffs' lawyers really aggressively act to poison the victim so they'll sue the church," said Patrick Shiltz, a law professor in Minnesota who represented churches in sex abuse cases. "There is a lot of abuse that is happening on the plaintiffs' side."

The mutual distrust runs deep.

With such an emotional backdrop, the various sides in the Oregon clergy abuse scandal have agreed to enter the decidedly subdued process of mediation. The talks are scheduled to begin Feb. 24 and last up to seven weeks.

It's hard to say what will happen because a judge has barred both sides from talking. But lawyers who have been through this say the trick will be to reach a deal that gives a sense of relief and vindication for the victims but also leaves the church standing.

Mediation nothing new This won't be the first time that mediation has been used to resolve Catholic clergy abuse lawsuits in Oregon.

In 2000, the Portland Archdiocese reached a deal with 25 men who said they were molested by the Rev. Maurice Grammond, Oregon's worst pedophile priest, who died last year.

The deal included undisclosed financial terms, the adoption by the archdiocese of a new policy to evaluate priest abuse claims and a public apology by Archbishop John Vlazny.

Douglas Ray, one of the plaintiffs involved in the settlement negotiations, said the mediators did a good job of keeping a potentially volatile process professional.

"It was not like a carpet bazaar in Uzbekistan," said Ray, an environmental consultant in Seaside. "It was very straightforward, surprisingly so and fortunately so because emotionally you're in a pretty tough state. And it went very smoothly."

Ray said the process took place in the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland. He and his attorneys sat in one room while attorneys for the Portland Archdiocese and its insurers sat in another.

The mediators shuttled back and forth, describing offers and counteroffers, trying to get the two sides to agree.

"It was not exactly a good cop, bad cop thing, but it was something like that," he said.

Ray said his part took just an hour. But he spent the rest of three days waiting in the hall with the other accusers.

"It was something to endure," he said. "But in our case, you had the benefit of that group dynamic of mutual support."

Much bigger case this time The upcoming mediation will be far more difficult.

Not only are there more than four times as many plaintiffs, but there also are more than three dozen accused priests.

And there is not just one defendant this time. In addition to the Portland Archdiocese, a dozen Catholic religious orders are named in the lawsuits.

And perhaps most challenging, the church's insurers are balking at covering any settlement.

Church officials have said that insurance was key to the 2000 Grammond agreement, covering the vast majority of the financial settlement.

During the two decades of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, settlements have been reached across the country, from rural Louisiana to Minnesota to Massachusetts and California.

In Rhode Island last fall, negotiations produced an agreement in which the Diocese of Providence publicly apologized and paid more than $14 million to 37 people who claimed they were abused by priests.

As importantly, said a plaintiffs' attorney, the tone of the talks was clearly different from their previous dealings.

"They moved from what had been the classic hardball litigation (strategy) to what was perceived by most of the clients as a genuinely conciliatory approach," said Tim Conlon, the lead plaintiffs' attorney. "It's going to cost them some money, but they're going to be able to do the right thing, and it's going to allow them to rebuild good will with both the victims and the community."

But others are skeptical, not so much that a financial deal can be reached, but about whether the bitter feelings that have dogged the scandal are anywhere close to subsiding.

"Unfortunately, the bishops have not earnestly changed their hearts and their minds and their attitudes about the plight of victims," said Mark Serrano, a resident of Leesburg, Va., and a board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group.

"They will still today profess to support the healing of victims and then send their lawyers out the back door to attack us in any way possible in the courtroom." Ashbel "Tony" Green: 503-221-8202;

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