Q&A: Lawyer for Abused Explains Church Payout

The record $660 million settlement approved today by a Los Angeles judge ends a five-year legal battle between victims of abuse by Catholic priests and the nation's largest Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The agreement came on the eve of civil trials that could have led to embarrassing public revelations—and put Cardinal Roger Mahony in the witness stand to explain personnel decisions in which pedophile priests were promoted, moved and protected for decades. Together with earlier settlements, the L.A. Archdiocese has now agreed to pay $764 million, far in excess of the $157 million paid in Boston in 2003.

Under the terms of the agreement, the settlement is divided among the 508 victims according to the severity of their cases. The church will pay $250 million, its insurance carriers $227 million, and religious orders who employed some of the priests will pay out $60 million. The source of the $123 million remains to be determined. It may come from the religious orders—who continue to negotiate with the victims' lawyers. If not, the archdiocese has agreed to pay.

Plaintiffs' attorney Raymond Boucher led the legal team representing the victims. The exhausted lawyer spoke to NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr by phone this afternoon about the settlement and the issue that nearly derailed negotiations last week. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How is this settlement going to work, and what's it going to bring the victims?
Raymond Boucher:
It's going to bring them the end of a very difficult chapter in the odyssey associated with their childhood sexual abuse, which is the legal chapter. Hopefully, this will bring some peace of mind and some realization that the courage they showed in standing up and saying I was victimized was validated today. And that the whole world now knows they didn't do anything wrong. It wasn't their fault. They shouldn't feel shame or guilt. And that other people who have been sexually abused will find courage from the cases of these people who are settling their cases today.

How will the payout of the $660 million work?
Each of the victims and/or their lawyers met privately with the court and resolved their cases. It depends upon the factual circumstances of the case as to how much that particular victim will be getting from the settlement. There's no average and no real number that you can put on any particular case. It's really an individualized assessment…

Where will the money come from?
The church is putting up immediately $250 million in cash. The insurance carriers are putting up $227 million in cash. The orders are responsible for putting up $60 million immediately. There's another $123 million the orders are responsible for, and either they will put it up, or we will go to trial against them. And the church is guaranteeing their amount.

Why wasn't that nailed down?
Frankly, that's one of the reasons why talks nearly collapsed last week. They just could not come up with the resources. Several orders just refused to put up any money. And many of these cases are order cases, where the order priest [as opposed to a diocesan priest attached directly to the archdiocese] is the primary person who is responsible. They need to be held accountable. So rather than just let them skate, we are going to hold them accountable. And we'll likely go to jury trial with many or most.

How many victims have that kind of unresolved cases?
About 20 of my clients and about 40 overall.

There was a lot of concern about what kinds of documents about the abuse might be made public? How did that discussion go?
We were able to force the archdiocese into turning over all of the files, and allowed a judge to determine which, if any, records could not be turned over to the public. They also waived the archdiocese's right to appeal the judge's decision. So we're going to see virtually all of the documents in any of these files turned over to the public in the near future.

It's not your problem, but where is the church going to find the money?
I think they have cash reserves, and I think they are probably borrowing some money from the Vatican to bridge the gap. Then clearly, they are going to have to sell some real estate assets in order to fund this.

What kind of assets, do you know?
I don't know. I know they are not selling parishes and not selling anything that they consider critical to their ministry. I think mostly it's administrative property and some investment properties

What explains the timing of this settlement? It's obviously on the eve of trial. Anything more complicated than that?
No, I think it's a celebration of the American civil-justice system. There was a realization that there'd be not only this trial, but 20 trials involving 172 victims within six months. The weight of all those jury trials and all of those individual jurors seeing what happened to these victims and making a fair assessment of the human costs—I think the weight of all that was just too much for the church to bear, and it caused them to say now's the time.

It's a record amount. Granted this is the biggest archdiocese in the country but even on a per-victim basis, the settlement promises to be higher than others. Why?
Tenacity and hard work and a commitment by the legal team that they were going to get full justice. That's a hard term. I'm not sure there is such a thing as full justice involving these cases. But there was a recognition of just how much these individuals have suffered and how deep the scars go.

From your side, what has the church learned?
I don't know. We won't know that for several years. Clearly these victims in [the U.S.] cases moved the Church in ways they haven't been moved for 2,000 years. It's far too early to tell what lessons they learned. I hope this is just a beginning with the Church and that additional reforms and changes are made that ensure the integrity of the church and the safety of the church.

Can you tell us what Cardinal Mahony's outlook is now?
Not really. All I can tell you is that he met with a lot of our victims. A lot of the stories had a profound impact on him. I hope that it's a lasting impact that will cause him to become a leader around the world to ensure this doesn't happen again. It's very clear that he was affected by the personal contact with our clients and understanding the profound failure of the Catholic Church in protecting them.

Did he seem mindful of having been [seen as] an impediment in earlier years?
I think that he began to understand that in fact he was an impediment and that he didn't do early on what was necessary, and that perhaps if he had it to do again, his initial reaction would have been much different.

What's the legacy of this case?
This isn't just a Catholic Church problem—it's a problem in many religions and in many great institutions. It's a deep, pervasive problem in our society. It's a huge story and an incredible day, and I hope it's a big enough day to cause reflection around the world so that people begin to take greater steps to protect children. That's the legacy of this case.