Mediation Begins in Clergy-Abuse Lawsuits
Settlement Talks Get under Way between Plaintiffs, Archdiocese

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded June 4, 2003

Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly and other church officials met with lawyers representing alleged victims of sexual abuse yesterday to begin exploring a possible settlement of the litigation against the Archdiocese of Louisville. Both sides spoke optimistically about the closed-door talks but gave few details about the first day of mediation, which is scheduled to continue today and tomorrow and may resume next week.

"We're all glad we're here," said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the Roman Catholic archdiocese. "This is an important process."

William McMurry, who is representing most of the alleged victims of sexual abuse, also spoke of a "time of optimism" following a day of talks. He said Kelly's presence at the opening session was "a sign of good faith on the part of the archdiocese to take these cases seriously."

The talks, being held at the Jefferson Club on the 29th floor of PNC Plaza, are aimed at resolving the bulk of the cases against the archdiocese.

Jefferson Circuit Judge James M. Shake, who is overseeing the cases, earlier this year approved the suits as a class action for purposes of negotiating a settlement. Shake gave the parties until Aug. 1 to reach a settlement.

In the talks, McMurry is representing 242 people with pending lawsuits against the archdiocese, alleging sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the church. The suits allege the archdiocese covered up the abuse, which church officials deny.

The talks also include lawyers for a Southern Indiana-based province of Conventual Franciscans, which is a co-defendant in 19 of the lawsuits alleging abuse by some of its clerics who worked in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Yesterday was a listening session, according to representatives of both sides.

McMurry spent most of the day presenting his plaintiffs' case - a process that included presentations of videotaped testimony from some of his clients about the alleged abuse and, in cases where abuse was allegedly reported to the archdiocese, "what the archdiocese did or didn't do in response to that information."

The archdiocese began presenting its case late in the afternoon and is scheduled to resume this morning.

Later today, representatives of the archdiocese, the Franciscans and the plaintiffs will each go to separate rooms while mediator Nicholas Politan shuttles between them. McMurry said the negotiators would begin to discuss possible dollar amounts for a settlement then.

Politan, a former federal district judge from New Jersey who specializes in mediating cases with large numbers of plaintiffs, said little after yesterday's session.

Since April 2002, a total of 253 people have filed lawsuits against the archdiocese, alleging they were abused by 35 priests as well as six others associated with the church over the past five decades.

Six of those lawsuits have been settled in mediation for undisclosed sums of money. One plaintiff opted out of the settlement talks, while a handful of other suits were filed after the deadline for participating in the talks.

Kelly declined to speak with reporters when he left the mediation session early yesterday afternoon for a trip. Reynolds will lead the archdiocesan negotiating team for subsequent sessions.

In a letter to Catholics in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Record, he asked for prayer for the process.

"Unlike a trial where both sides enter the process as antagonists, successful mediation requires everyone to sit down and talk about what is best," Kelly wrote. "It is a challenging process. If it is successful, however, victims and the Church can end the legal battles and begin the process of healing."

Neither side hinted at what sort of dollar amounts would be discussed in the lawsuits, but recent precedents suggest it could be in the millions.

Since the start of 2002 the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., has agreed to pay $15.45million to 176 alleged sexual abuse victims, according to the Telegraph of Nashua, N.H.

Last year the Diocese of Providence, R.I., reached a $13.5million settlement with 36 victims, and the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to a $10million settlement with 86 plaintiffs.

McMurry said recently he believed that individual payments to plaintiffs would probably be decided based on a variety of factors, such as the type of abuse they allegedly suffered, the number of times they were allegedly abused, their age at the time and whether there is evidence someone previously reported the alleged abuser to the archdiocese.

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