The Associated Press
Attorney Jerome F. O'Neill holds a news conference in Burlington on Thursday. The lawyer for former altar boys and young churchgoers suing Vermont's Catholic Church says the diocese agreed to settle nearly 30 outstanding priest sex abuse lawsuits.
Vermont's Catholic Church agreed Thursday to pay more than $20 million to settle almost 30 outstanding priest misconduct lawsuits against it.
The state's largest religious denomination will give 26 accusers a collective $17.65 million to drop child sex abuse cases pending in Burlington's Chittenden Superior Court. It also will grant an unspecified sum, confirmed to be at least $3 million, to several more plaintiffs who won jury verdicts now on appeal.
The unprecedented agreement won't preclude other accusers from filing lawsuits in the future. But the settlement, at least for the moment, ends an eight-year saga in which 36 former altar boys and young churchgoers sued the statewide Roman Catholic diocese for negligence over the past half-century in hiring and supervising pedophile priests.
The 118,000-member diocese will pay the plaintiffs by selling its 32-acre historic headquarters overlooking Burlington's Lake Champlain (it's now seeking new office space) and its 26-acre Camp Holy Cross property along Colchester's Malletts Bay.
"No funds from parishes, institutions, charitable agencies of the diocese or the Bishop's Fund have been used for past settlements, and none are being used to meet the financial obligations resulting from these present settlements," Bishop Salvatore Matano said in a letter posted on the diocese's website.
In the message, Matano apologized to the survivors — "This has been a very painful process for the victims and for all the members of our diocesan family" — and, thanking "Our Lord," "beg his forgiveness for any insensitivity or lack of charity which I may have shown throughout this process."
Burlington lawyer Jerome O'Neill, representing the plaintiffs, said he had spoken to each before accepting the agreement.
"I give great credit to our clients for their courage in coming forward and persevering," said O'Neill, who started receiving cases shortly after news of a national scandal in 2002 led the state Attorney General's office to investigate the Vermont diocese.
The state reviewed misconduct allegations against 40 recently practicing or retired priests but didn't charge anyone criminally because the claims found credible were too old to prosecute under various statutes of limitations.
Accusers, however, are free to file civil lawsuits. A private arbitrator will meet with the 26 waiting plaintiffs to decide how they will divide their $17.65 million settlement.
In addition, the diocese has agreed to drop its state Supreme Court appeals and pay undisclosed sums to three Burlington natives who won large Superior Court jury verdicts, including Perry Babel (who received a record $8.7 million in May 2008), David Navari (nearly $3.6 million in December 2008) and Michael Keppler ($2.2 million last October).
"The terms of those settlements were much more modest than the jury awards," the bishop wrote in his letter, "but, at the request of the plaintiffs, the precise amounts are confidential."
O'Neill added only that the sum brought the total settlement to more than $20 million.
Lawyers for all involved said they had been trying to forge a collective agreement for 18 months. Had they not done so by May 31, Chittenden Superior Court Judge Helen Toor was prepared to hear a majority of the outstanding cases in an unprecedented joint trial set to start in September and run two months.
Announcing the agreement, O'Neill's office released a statement from two unnamed clients.
Wrote one: "Although this is a monetary victory for all the plaintiffs, it's far from an emotional victory. The feelings I have for the Catholic Church are still bitter."
And the other: "This isn't about a situation 30 years ago, it is about an institution that knew all along what was going on and then covered it up."
The news drew an equally stinging response from the national support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The credit for this settlement lies squarely with the brave victims who had the strength to come forward, the wisdom to seek justice in the courts and determination to persist despite years of expensive, futile and self-serving legal maneuvers by Vermont's bishop," said David Clohessy, the network's executive director.
"No amount of money can possibly restore the shattered childhoods, the broken trust and the devastated emotional lives of these courageous but wounded men and women," Clohessy continued. "We hope they feel some healing and closure."
O'Neill acknowledged that several clients questioned whether they should settle rather than speak out before a jury. But he said after so many years, it was time to move on.
"It will never be erased," the lawyer said, "but here, you close this chapter."
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