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  Home :: 2007 September :: Ruling allows trials to advance in clergy sex abuse
Ruling allows trials to advance in clergy sex abuse
  • Forty-two cases in San Diego are sent back to state court, despite diocese's bankruptcy filing

    SAN DIEGO -- When the Roman Catholic Diocese ofSan Diego filed for bankruptcy in February, abruptly halting multiplesex-abuse lawsuits on the eve of the trial, Michael Bang thought hischance for a day in court was gone.

    On Friday, a federal bankruptcy judge revived hope for Bang, rulingthat 42 cases be sent back to state courts for immediate jury trials.

    "Doing that in February really reaffirmed to me how significant thecover-up is," said Bang, a 46-year-old Atlanta man, who says he spentyears of his boyhood as a sex slave to a reverend monsignor. "They wantto do anything they can within the legal system to stop it, but allit's done is made me more committed to telling the truth."

    U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Louise DeCarl Adler's ruling was a victory forBang and about 150 other people who say they were sexually abused bypriests as children.

    Five trials out of about 127 filed against the diocese were scheduledto begin last spring in state court in San Diego. Lawyers for theplaintiffs argued that re-activating those trials was the only way toget the diocese to settle after more than three years of fruitlessnegotiations in state and federal courts.

    "This just ratchets up the pressure on everyone to get the casessettled," said Irwin Zalkin, who represents 54 plaintiffs. "Everyoneunderstands it could go any way in a jury trial."

    The San Diego diocese has offered about $94 million to settle the claims as part of its bankruptcy reorganization plan. Plaintiffs' attorneys are seeking a settlement of about $200 million.

    The judge rejected the diocese's argument that she could return trialsto state court only under "exceptional circumstances," saying she hadbroader discretion.

    Even if the church were correct, "clearly this tsunami of child sexabuse cases against the Roman Catholic clergy would qualify as'exceptional,'" Adler wrote.

    Plaintiffs, whose cases were not among those remanded, nonetheless welcomed the renewed possibility of trial.

    "My hope is that they don't settle and we go to trial," said DianeWilliams, a 49-year-old mother who says she was raped as a girl by amonsignor at a church-run orphanage. "I think these things need to getout, but I don't think the diocese will let that happen."

    Lawyers for the diocese told the judge Thursday that the fastest way toresolve the claims was for a federal district judge to determine a fairpayment instead of letting juries consider the sex-abuse cases one byone.

    "We had hoped that the judge would agree with us that the process thebankruptcy court had set in place was the most expeditious way to getthese cases settled," said Susan Boswell, an attorney representing thediocese. "She obviously didn't agree with us."

    Adler's ruling puts the cases back under the jurisdiction of statecourts. She will decide the order in which to release each of the 42cases for trial, likely beginning with those that were already close tobeing heard last spring, said Ryan DiMaria, an attorney representing aman whose case was supposed to be the second in line.

    Trials could begin in as little as 60 days, plaintiffs' attorneys said.

    The Los Angeles Archdiocese settled 508 cases for $660 million in July,two days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the first of15 trials involving 172 abuse claimants.

    The Orange County diocese agreed to settle 90 claims for $100 millionin 2004 after a judge promised to set trial dates and begin thediscovery process if settlement talks collapsed. Bishop Tod Brown latersaid he couldn't risk a trial in a state where a jury once awarded $30million to two people who claimed they were sexually abused by clergy.

    Attorneys for the San Diego diocese have argued that jury trials wouldslow progress toward a settlement and may give unfair priority to theclaims of plaintiffs whose cases went to trial first.

    With nearly 1 million Catholics and holdings throughout San DiegoCounty, the diocese is by far the largest and wealthiest of the fiveU.S. dioceses to have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection underthe shadow of civil claims over sexual abuse.

    Dioceses in Spokane, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., havealready emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Davenport,Iowa, diocese, which faces claims from more than 150 people, is stillin proceedings.


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    Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia