By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Recently, criminal-defense attorneys for accused former priest Michael Wempe complained to the judge at his preliminary hearing that only the prosecutors had received a database of alleged victims from lawyers for the archdiocese, allowing them to round up corroborating witnesses. Wempe, whom Mahony reassigned as a hospital chaplain at Cedars-Sinai despite knowledge that he is a molester, is accused of molesting 13 youths from 1972 to 1995, and awaits a criminal trial. Such moves by the cardinal appear aimed at shielding himself and church officials. “The church has done a good job of covering up the culpability of Mahony and his vicars and bishops,” Richard Farnell, a former prosecutor and now a trial lawyer in Newport Beach, says.
That may be an understatement. Mahony and his fellow bishops have been compared to La Cosa Nostra by Frank Keating, the former head of a National Review Board of lay Catholics handpicked by the bishops to monitor the church. He was forced to resign for his remarks last year. Keating saw firsthand how Mahony attempted to undermine independent auditors such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice by encouraging lack of cooperation from the bishops. When the John Jay study was due, Mahony released his own report — exclusively to the Times.
Mahony is not alone in causing victims like Dennis to feel as if they are being re-victimized. That’s where it gets messy. Survivors of abuse have come to regard their own attorneys as being more concerned with the economics of the situation than justice. After coming forward almost two years ago, Dennis is disappointed that trial lawyers who promised to fight for accountability have allowed the church to keep a lid on the clergy sex-abuse scandal. “I want a trial so bad, it hurts,” she says. “I want to scream and holler and talk about what happened to me.”
Yet the examination of church documents, if it takes place at all, takes place behind closed doors. The possibility for the church to quietly settle hundreds of abuse claims hangs heavy. “Our lawyers say they will do whatever they have to do for us, but it seems like it’s coming down to them making enough money versus forcing the truth out of the church,” says sex-abuse survivor Steven Sanchez. “If we end up settling, then no one gets punched in the stomach. I want Mahony to get punched in the stomach.”
Such distrust by victims of their attorneys is particularly troubling in light of a secret agreement by some tough-talking trial lawyers on the night of December 24, 2002, to negotiate in private with the Catholic Church. Trial lawyers Raymond Boucher, Katherine Freberg and John Manly were in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman along with J. Michael Hennigan, the archdiocese’s attorney. Boucher had filed a class-action suit that was before Lichtman after successfully lobbying for a new law that summer that for one year waived the statute of limitations for older claims of abuse. Boucher orchestrated his legislative coup at the peak of the national clergy scandal along with Stockton trial lawyer Larry Drivon and state Senator Joe Dunn, a former trial lawyer. The church never contested the law, which passed unanimously. “It was power politics, plain and simple,” says Drivon of a move that turned clergy sex abuse into a business for trial lawyers and a headache for the trial courts.
The expectation that night in Lichtman’s chambers was that trial lawyers would file an onslaught of sex-abuse lawsuits against the church in 2003. Lichtman, one of the premier settlement judges in the state, would likely end up handling those cases. So Hennigan, the church lawyer, made a proposal. “I asked them if they would agree to hold off filing lawsuits for the first 90 days of 2003, so we could negotiate in Lichtman’s court over a potential settlement,” Hennigan says.
The incentive for Hennigan was obvious: avoid the kind of scrutiny created by active litigation. For Boucher and Freberg, attorneys with small-to-medium-sized firms, the incentive was to avoid the cost of having to try so many lawsuits at once, as they were on their way to gathering more than 300 clients and 100 clients, respectively. Manly, who now has more than 50 clients himself, went along with the deal, he says, because he had faith that the clergy lawsuits could be streamlined without abandoning the goal of rooting out evidence of a conspiracy. So the trial lawyers agreed not to sue for 90 days and to negotiate in private in front of Lichtman.
The 90-day agreement, however, turned into 14 months of private negotiations, following a decision by the Judicial Council of California to coordinate all of the clergy cases in Southern California into one court. One reason for such an action is to prevent a flood of lawsuits from clogging the courts and to avoid a barrage of appeals from courts around the state. Coordination of massive legal actions is common in product-liability cases or insurance-fraud cases where there are hundreds or thousands of victims. Besides being more efficient for the court, which currently is in a budget crisis, coordination often leads to groundbreaking global settlements. It was a challenge that Lichtman, a candidate for assistant presiding judge in Los Angeles County, relished.