Abuse Suits Ok'd As Class Action Judge Suspends Activity against Archdiocese

By Gregory A. Hall
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded May 1, 2003

A Jefferson circuit judge ruled yesterday that the more than 200 sexual abuse lawsuits pending against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville may be handled as a class action during settlement talks.

Judge James M. Shake also agreed yesterday that most other activity in those cases should cease until the settlement discussions are completed - in about 90 days.

Shake held a hearing on those issues Tuesday; his decision was entered yesterday.

Plaintiffs have 30 days to decide whether they want to take part in the class, which is defined as all pending cases filed from April 2002 through April 23.

If they opt out - as at least one plaintiff has said he would - their cases would be handled separately.

After the 30 days are up, Shake would be informed how many people remain in the class action, and attorneys for the class and the archdiocese then would have roughly two months to negotiate a possible settlement.

Representatives of the archdiocese and of most plaintiffs expressed satisfaction with Shake's ruling yesterday.

"To have the support and guidance from the court as we attempt this unique approach to addressing civil litigation against the church is very helpful to us," said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the archdiocese.

"It is an important and unique opportunity to bring to a conclusion litigation which is taking its toll on all the parties," said William McMurry, who represents 214 plaintiffs.

But Wallace Rogers, an attorney for plaintiff Kyle Burden, said his client will not take part in the class settlement, and he plans to appeal Shake's 90-day limitation on activity in the cases.

Among the limitations set by Shake's order is a hold on any trial dates being set in the cases against the church.

Rogers said yesterday that he plans to file his challenge, called a writ, with the Kentucky Court of Appeals next week. He said Shake has no authority to limit plaintiffs who opt out of the class.

"I don't want to be in a class action because every one I've been in, the plaintiffs get shafted," Rogers said, adding that Burden wants a jury to determine what the damages should be in his case.

Rogers also said he filed a motion yesterday requesting that Shake, who is chief judge and has taken some administrative oversight over all the cases, allow Burden's case to be turned over to its assigned judge, Thomas B. Wine, so a trial date can be set.

Shake's order designates McMurry, Ann Oldfather and Douglas Morris as attorneys for the class; Edward Stopher as counsel for the archdiocese; and Donald Kelly as attorney for the Southern Indiana-based province of Franciscans, the target of 19 lawsuits.

There have been 247 lawsuits filed against the archdiocese since April 2002, and McMurry expects all of his 214 to participate in the class.

One exception to the delay in activity is the scheduled deposition of the Rev. Louis E. Miller, who is named as an abuser in more than 90 civil cases and has pleaded guilty to 50 criminal charges related to child sexual abuse in Jefferson Circuit Court.

During Tuesday's hearing, attorneys pushing for Shake to declare the plaintiffs as a class said any inconvenience for plaintiffs who opt out of the settlement would be minor.

"There is truly strength in numbers," McMurry said yesterday, adding that mediating individual cases or groups of them could be time-consuming.

Both he and archdiocesan attorney Kevin Ford, who is a member of the National Diocesan Attorneys Association, said they believe the approach using a class-action negotiation is unprecedented in cases against dioceses.

Reynolds said he is aware of settlements with groups of people by other dioceses, although he said he knows of no other instance where a judge formally declared the plaintiffs as a class.

Both McMurry and Reynolds have said that they have not discussed dollar figures yet.

Reynolds said he hopes a settlement can be reached that allows the archdiocese to continue its service programs while also compensating victims justly.

"We have a very challenging task ahead of us," Reynolds said. "However, the fact that the attorney for this significant number of litigants and the attorneys for the archdiocese have worked together on developing this process is certainly a hopeful sign."

The settlement talks are open to plaintiffs represented by other attorneys, and at least one of those said Tuesday that he would recommend to his clients that they remain in the class.

John Cox, who represents plaintiffs in seven cases, said he will recommend that they remain in the class. Even if negotiations are unsuccessful, Cox said the delay would only be 90 days.

One of his clients is suing the Rev. Daniel Clark, besides the archdiocese, alleging the priest abused her sons.

A class-action settlement "would not affect their rights against Clark individually," Cox said after Tuesday's hearing.

The archdiocese already has negotiated settlements in six cases.


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