Judge Orders Trials in Church Suits
SAN DIEGO (AP) — When the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego filed forbankruptcy in February, abruptly halting multiple sex-abuse lawsuits onthe eve of trial, Michael Bang thought his chance for a day in courtwas gone.
On Friday, a federal bankruptcy judge revived hope forBang, ruling that 42 cases be sent back to state courts for immediatejury trials.
"Doing that in February really reaffirmed to me howsignificant the cover-up is," said Bang, a 46-year-old Atlanta man whosays he spent years of his boyhood as a sex slave to a reverendmonsignor. "They want to do anything they can within the legal systemto stop it, but all it's done is made me more committed to telling thetruth."
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Louise DeCarl Adler's ruling was avictory for Bang and about 150 other people who claim they weresexually abused by priests as children.
Five trials out of about127 filed against the diocese were scheduled to begin last spring instate court in San Diego. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued thatre-activating those trials was the only way to get the diocese tosettle after more than three years of fruitless negotiations in stateand federal courts.
"This just ratchets up the pressure oneveryone to get the cases settled," said Irwin Zalkin, who represents54 alleged victims. "Everyone understands it could go any way in a jurytrial."
The San Diego diocese has offered about $94 million tosettle the claims as part of its bankruptcy reorganization plan.Plaintiffs' attorneys are seeking a settlement of about $200 million.
Thejudge rejected the diocese's argument that she could return trials tostate court only under "exceptional circumstances," saying she hadbroader discretion.
Even if the church were correct, "clearlythis tsunami of child sex abuse cases against the Roman Catholic clergywould qualify as 'exceptional,'" Adler wrote.
Plaintiffs whose cases were not among those remanded nonetheless welcomed the renewed possibility of trial.
"Myhope 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."
Lawyersfor the diocese told the judge Thursday that the fastest way to resolvethe claims was for a federal district judge to determine a fair paymentinstead of letting juries consider the sex-abuse cases one by one.
"Wehad 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 rulingputs the cases back under the jurisdiction of state courts. She willdecide the order in which to release each of the 42 cases for trial,likely beginning with those that were already close to being heard lastspring, said Ryan DiMaria, an attorney representing a man whose casewas supposed to be the second in line.
Trials could begin in as little as 60 days, plaintiffs' attorneys said.
TheLos Angeles Archdiocese settled 508 cases for $660 million in July, twodays before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the first of 15trials involving 172 abuse claimants.
The Orange County dioceseagreed to settle 90 claims for $100 million in 2004 after a judgepromised to set trial dates and begin the discovery process ifsettlement talks collapsed. Bishop Tod D. Brown later said he couldn'trisk a trial in a state where a jury once awarded $30 million to twopeople who claimed they were sexually abused by clergy.
Attorneysfor the San Diego diocese have argued that jury trials would slowprogress toward a settlement and may give unfair priority to the claimsof plaintiffs whose cases went to trial first.
With nearly 1million Catholics and holdings throughout San Diego County, the dioceseis by far the largest and wealthiest of the five U.S. dioceses to havefiled for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection under the shadow of civilclaims over sexual abuse.
Dioceses in Spokane, Wash., Portland,Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., have already emerged from Chapter 11bankruptcy protection. The Davenport, Iowa, diocese, which faces claimsfrom more than 150 people, is still in proceedings.
for a listing of alternate locations.