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Spotlight Report

Attorneys expect most plaintiffs to accept deal

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 9/10/2003


Gary Bergeron of Lowell, who was allegedly abused by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham as a child, talked to reporters after the settlement was announced. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

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Details of the abuse settlement

After reviewing a tentative $85 million deal to settle hundreds of clergy sexual abuse cases, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney looked up from her bench yesterday and reminded victims that there remains an alternative to the costly deal struck in private.

"The courthouse doors remain open," she said.

But lawyers for more than 500 people who say they were sexually abused by priests told Sweeney that they expect an "overwhelming majority" of their clients to ratify the agreement, accepting cash payments in return for surrendering their civil claims against the church. For the deal to become final, 80 percent of the victims must sign on within 37 days.

"Everybody says it's not about the money, but in the long and the short of it, it is about the money," said Thomas Blanchette, who said he was repeatedly abused by the Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Sudbury in the early 1960s.

"I'm not in it for the money, but I've come to understand that the higher cost to the archdiocese, the more vigilant they will be in the future," said Blanchette. "I want them to understand the severity of all this. We just want to get this over with."

Plaintiffs' lawyer William H. Gordon told Sweeney that most of the victims covered by the tentative agreement have yet to see its details and neither have their attorneys. But once that happens later this week, he said, lawyers expect nearly all of their clients to settle.

William Oberle, an alleged victim of the Rev. Paul Mahan, who was defrocked in 1998, said he will not be one of them.

"I don't think so," said Oberle. "I don't think it's enough for anybody. It's like they're trying to get a volume discount. I don't go for that. I don't care for that. I want to go to trial."

But as he stared into a phalanx of reporters and television crews in a park across the street from the courthouse where the tentative agreement was announced, Gary Bergeron of Lowell blinked back tears as he tried to explain what the deal meant to him.

"This piece of paper means one thing to me and to many men that I represent here today," said Bergeron, also an alleged victim of Birmingham. "From this day forward in the eyes of you people, in the eyes of the church, I am not an alleged victim of clergy abuse. I'm recognized. I'm a survivor. That's been a very painful journey."

Bergeron said there has been no poll taken among Birmingham survivors to determine whether the deal announced yesterday is acceptable to most victims.

"My sense would be it's time for people to make a choice and it's an individual choice," he said.

Olan Horne, another Birmingham victim, said he has not yet read the entire proposal and could not say with certainty that he would endorse it.

"This is not about money. This is a gratuitous `thank you' that I will get," said Horne. "You want to know what number I would be happy with? There isn't a dollar amount. What is this? This is for me to be able to take and say, `OK. We can start over here again.'

"This whole system isn't set up to deal with my healing process. It has nothing to do with it. It's a separate issue."

Bernie McDaid, who hugged Horne in Sweeney's courtroom after the judge had left the bench and more than a dozen lawyers exchanged handshakes, agreed.

McDaid, who said he was abused by the Birmingham in Salem 40 years ago, a key piece of the deal is the archdiocese's agreement to extend therapy to victims who still need it.

"I came forward on a simple premise," he said. "This has to stop. This has to stop for the children, and we today are a step closer to that being a reality."

Gordon, who helped negotiate last year's $10 million settlement of claims against defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, who was strangled in his prison cell last month, said there is a strong sense among plaintiffs' lawyers that those who balk at the deal will be in a distinct minority.

"Every victim has to decide this, but the members of the committee got a sense that a number of their clients would accept this . . . Nobody has been able to explain the details yet because we didn't have an agreement until today," he said. "The dollars here are in the range last year in the Geoghan case. They're paying very close to that money."

Jeffrey A. Newman, a lawyer for the Boston firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents more than 260 people who have filed claims against the archdiocese, said he spent the last 10 days contacting victims, trying to assess their support for the emerging deal.

"We had to have a sense of where it will go," Newman said. "So I contacted 50 people over the last 2 1/2 weeks and I had a very high percentage rate of individuals who really wanted to go forward. We can't guarantee that that is true sampling, but we have a good sense that at least 95 to 97 percent of those individuals will go for this."

One victims' advocate, David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said if the Boston deal is ratified it will send a signal to bishops around the nation that reconciliation can be attained quickly.

"If this can happen in weeks in Boston, why can't we the bishops cut the hardball tactics in other cities?" Clohessy asked. "I hope people will see if you come forward there is at least a chance, however slim, of some degree of closure. It's crucial to remember that no amount of money will bring back those stolen years and that innocence and that self-esteem. But for some this will be an important acknowledgment that serious crimes did happen."

Bergeron agreed. "For the last 18 months Boston has been an example of everything -- everything -- that could be wrong with the church," Bergeron said. "If the archdiocese of Boston uses this document and they continue on the steps that they have started to take with the installation of Bishop O'Malley, Boston and the archdiocese have an opportunity, an obligation and a chance to become everything that is right with the church."


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