Camden Diocese Settles Suit

By Jim Walsh
Courier-Post [Camden NJ]
March 14, 2003

An 8 1/2-year legal battle over clergy abuse ended Wednesday with an $880,000 settlement between the Camden Diocese and 23 people who said they were sexually assaulted by priests and others.

Under the agreement, the plaintiffs will receive average payments of about $17,000 after attorneys are paid.

Also, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, spiritual head of the South Jersey diocese, offered to meet with any person in the suit who was claiming abuse.

DiMarzio said the diocese, which had won every courtroom fight in the suit over the years, wants to "speed the process of healing for those who have been harmed in any way."

Plaintiff Gary Mulford of New Gretna is making a list of questions for the bishop.

"At last, I will be able to speak to someone who can really hear my pleas as a victim, as opposed to aggressive lawyers," Mulford said.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs described the individual payments as "modest." But the attorney, Edward J. Ross of Haddon Township, said the church's accusers were satisfied because they viewed the settlement "as an apology."

And a spokesman for a national group of clergy-abuse victims said the South Jersey plaintiffs had won their fight by pushing the Camden Diocese to adopt strong measures against predator priests.

"These people are heroes," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We certainly admire these men and women for seeking justice and persisting over all these years."

The suit, filed years before priest abuse became a prominent issue for the Roman Catholic Church in this country, alleged incidents of sexual abuse by 15 priests in the Camden Diocese between 1961 and 1985.

At the time of the alleged assaults, the victims were children growing up in parishes across South Jersey. But the plaintiffs were adults when they filed the class-action suit, and that had a big impact on their case.

By the time of the settlement, a Superior Court judge in Atlantic County had reviewed the claims of six plaintiffs - and dismissed each one because it was filed too late.

Under state law, the statute of limitations expires two years after the victim becomes an adult.

A seventh claim was dismissed after a plaintiff admitted to lying during a deposition.

The seven plaintiffs whose claims were dismissed will share in the settlement.

"Out of the 130 or so motions we filed, we lost them all," Ross acknowledged. "Does that mean we were wrong? No. It just means we never got our day in court."

The diocese, which serves 445,000 Catholics in six counties, now faces no lawsuits over priest abuse.

In the wake of the settlement, the two sides gave contrasting views of the legal fight.

Ross, one of three lawyers for the plaintiffs, said the accusers "were victimized again" by the church's tactics, such as depositions that stretched over several days and investigations by private detectives.

"It was pretty bare-knuckled," he said.

But Andrew Walton, a diocese spokesman, noted the suit initially accused church leaders of being racketeers who conspired to hide incidents of child abuse. Those charges were previously dismissed.

"It's one thing to allege abuse by individual priests," Walton said. "It's another to say that the diocese acted in a way to allow abuse to occur, which is simply not true.

"The diocese felt it had not only the right, but the obligation, to protect itself," he said.

The settlement payment will come from a liability insurance fund, and not from parish collections or school tuitions, Walton said.

The plaintiffs will divide about $390,000 after attorneys take their share for costs and contingency fees. Ross, without giving details, said the lawyers had absorbed many of the suit's expenses.

"Had we not, there would not have been sufficient funds for the plaintiffs."

Payments to each person will vary, reflecting such factors as the level and duration of abuse, Ross said.

"It's never going to be enough compensation, no matter what the amount," said Kathy Norton of Waterford, the mother of a clergy-abuse victim and co-director of SNAP's South Jersey chapter.

"But this is not about the money," she said. "The most important thing is feeling validated."

At the diocese, Walton called the settlement "only one element in this matter." He said church officials now will focus on policies to protect against clergy abuse and to help people claiming to be victims.

"The bishop doesn't believe the best place to achieve pastoral outreach is in the courtroom," Walton said.

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