Church Reaches Deal, but Bitterness Remains

By Albert McKeon
Nashua Telegraph [New Hampshire]
Downloaded May 23, 2003

MANCHESTER - After reaching a $6.5 million settlement this week with 61 people, the Diocese of Manchester has agreed to pay $15.45 million to 176 alleged sexual abuse victims in just over a year.

But with the announcement Thursday of the most recent agreement, the words of attorney Mark Abramson starkly contrasted to those of lawyers who brokered past deals. Abramson believes the diocese does not care for victims, despite its gestures this past year.

"Do I think the church is swell and did great things? That's absolutely ridiculous," Abramson said. "They still don't get it."

The diocese settled with the 61 people only because Hillsborough Superior Court Judge Arthur Brennan ruled during civil proceedings that the church is responsible for its priests, Abramson said. The diocese moved for an out-of-court settlement only when faced with the prospect of a jury trial, he said.

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The diocese refutes Abramson's position. Diocesan officials claim they provide both financial help and emotional support to victims.

"It has always been our desire to reach a resolution that helps people move on with their lives," diocesan spokesman Pat McGee said Thursday.

Diocesan officials have reviewed abuse complaints individually, and when a claim proves credible, the diocese ultimately reaches a fair and quick resolution that provides financial support and a pastoral offer of counseling, McGee said.

Further, Abramson's clients - as with others who have settled - received an apology from the diocese, and will have their names and claims kept confidential, at their request, so they can heal outside of a public courtroom, McGee said.

"One reason we reached this settlement today is because Bishop (John) McCormack said we should do everything to help these people and not make this a contentious legal battle," McGee said.

Abramson said all 61 of his clients turned down the bishop's invitation to meet with him.

"They don't care about victims. It's all about power and money," Abramson said of diocesan officials.

"They need to be exposed and held accountable. This is not the end. I really do believe the next generation of attorneys will handle the next generation of victims. There are people between the ages of 6 and 30 who will come forward when they're older."

Abramson thinks McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian should resign - a call also made by an indeterminate but fairly considerable number of Catholics in New Hampshire. But both bishops have vowed they will stay and help heal the church.

"I am personally sorry for the hurt they have experienced and I have written to each person expressing my deep regret, an apology on behalf of the Church and my willingness to assist them personally in any way that is helpful," McCormack wrote in a press release.

The abuse suffered by Abramson's clients occurred before McCormack's installation as bishop in 1998, McGee said. Most acts happened between 1950 and 1980, with one occurring in the early 1990s, he said.

McCormack is "looking at the painful past of this diocese," McGee said. "The bishop has shown extraordinary leadership."

Under McCormack's direction, the diocese has instituted programs and mechanisms to prevent clergy abuse, McGee said. As part of a criminal agreement reached last year, the state attorney general's office will monitor diocesan handling of abuse for five years.

McCormack's supporters credit him for expressing remorse for the church's failings with abuse, and for moving forward more swiftly than other U.S. dioceses. Critics of the bishop fault his handling of abuse complaints while he was an aide to Cardinal Bernard Law in the Archdiocese of Boston from 1984 to 1994.

Two other New Hampshire attorneys - Peter Hutchins and Chuck Douglas - who have negotiated settlements with the diocese in the past year had only praise for diocesan officials. Hutchins and Douglas said church officials quickly offered an equitable package so their clients could start the healing process privately.

From the $6.5 million, Abramson's clients will receive an average of $108,000, with $455,000 the highest individual settlement and $20,000 the lowest, the attorney said.

The diocesan insurance fund will finance the settlement, with current coverage providing for some of the claims and future reserves meeting the balance of the payments, the diocese said. Parish, institutional and school funds have not been used to fund any settlement, the diocese said.

Abramson and his partner, Kenneth Brown, agreed that the diocese would pay the victims in three yearly installments starting this December. This agreement enables the diocese to maintain fiscal stability, McGee said.

Since April 2002, the diocese has agreed to pay $15.45 million to 176 alleged victims, McGee said. These settlements have strained finances, he said.

The diocese plans to make public detailed financial audit statements for fiscal years ending in June 2002 and June 2003 after the last audit is complete this fall.

Fewer than 12 people still have open cases against the diocese for alleged abuse, McGee said.

Abramson said he has a "handful" of clients about to pursue legal action against the diocese in the next few weeks.

"I'm not looking forward to dealing with the church," Abramson said. "They have an honorable attorney (James Higgins), but I don't have any faith in what his client has to say. . . . This was the most distasteful litigation in my 28 years of practice. I never saw defendants less concerned about people than these guys."

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832


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