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Judge considers deal between church, abuse victims
By Denise Lavoie, Associated Press, 08/07/02
BOSTON -- When the Archdiocese of Boston announced a deal had been reached with alleged sexual abuse victims of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, Cardinal Bernard Law called the agreement "an important step in reaching closure" for the victims.
But just below that quote, in the same news release, were words of caution noting that the settlement was an "agreement-in-principle" and would not become final until it was signed by the 86 alleged victims and 16 church officials named as defendants.
Now a judge must decide whether the agreement -- worth up to $30 million to the alleged victims -- was a binding contract.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney heard closing arguments Wednesday on the fifth day of a hearing on a motion by the victims to enforce the deal.
Lawyers for those who claimed abuse argued the settlement was binding, and pointed to assurances from lawyers for the archdiocese for two months after the agreement was announced in March that it was a done deal.
Attorney William Gordon said the archdiocese also represented in court during an April 12 hearing that the agreement was being finalized by gathering signatures from the 16 supervisory church officials named as defendants.
"The court was led to believe the cases were settled. The plaintiffs were led to believe the cases were settled," Gordon said.
Gordon also criticized Law for not following through on the agreement, saying the other church officials named in the lawsuits were looking for him to sign the deal before they would.
"Cardinal Law suggested he was going to do this through his language and through his public statements," Gordon said.
But attorneys for Law and the other church officials told the judge the deal was always contingent on coming up with enough money. Victims were to receive payments from $10,000 up to $938,000 each.
The archdiocese backed out of the agreement in May, after its finance council said the church could not afford to pay such a large amount with dozens of cases against other priests pending or expected to be filed.
Law's attorney, J. Owen Todd, focused his closing arguments on language in the agreement that said all 16 defendants were required to sign the document. Only three did.
Todd also noted that Law's news release, while upbeat, noted the agreement still required signatures.
"It is clear that yes, we're very pleased, optimistic and hopeful but (there was) also cautionary language that signatures are still needed for the agreement to be finalized," Todd said.
Attorney Wilson Rogers Jr. said it was made clear to the alleged victims' lawyers that the funding issue had not yet been resolved.
"There was no agreement. We worked hard. We worked valiantly to get an agreement, but we never got to that point," he said.
Law, testifying at the hearing last week, insisted he never considered the agreement to be final because it required signatures and the approval of the finance committee.
Sweeney gave lawyers on both sides until Aug. 30 to file written arguments. She did not indicate when she would issue her ruling.
Lawyers for both sides refused to comment Wednesday when asked if they currently were in continued settlement negotiations.