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
Lawyers for the Los Angeles Archdiocese learned from the Boston experience. They did not want to get dragged into an alley fight. Hennigan’s move to talk the trial lawyers in Los Angeles into a negotiation early on has protected Mahony from the cascade of damning revelations that brought down Cardinal Bernard Law. The strategy has worn down victims like Dennis who want both closure and accountability. Lawyers spent almost all of 2003 in Los Angeles haggling behind closed doors about insurance policies and potential settlement amounts. No one has examined the extent to which Mahony and other officials shuffled priests around. “We are cut off from exposing the collusion of the church hierarchy by the very way certain lawyers and the court have set up the process,” Arthur Goldberg, Dennis’ lawyer, says.
Goldberg has been critical of the coordinated approach to settlement. Like the other trial lawyers, he has promised Dennis, her sisters and their mother, who also are suing the church, that he will not settle their cases until Mahony is forced to reveal what he and church officials knew. “My clients want the history and the truth to come out,” he says. Goldberg is optimistic that Mahony’s PR strategy will backfire. “It was in the church’s interest over a year ago to settle, because there was less public exposure and less awareness about the breadth of the scandal,” he says. “Now, the church has gotten itself into a big hole that it can’t get out of. It is impossible to just offer money to settle these cases now. Full disclosure is required. And when the community sees what the bishops have done to conceal this problem, in the full light of day, there will be outrage.”
Stepping first into the sunlight and then into the shadows of private, group negotiations has been difficult for Dennis. During numerous meetings and more than a dozen telephone conversations over the last three months, she has shown different moods and outlooks from day to day. Some days she is depressed and tired; others she is angry and combative. “I ‰ wanted a chance to tell my story and hold someone accountable,” Dennis says wearily one day last November, sitting in her attorney’s Echo Park office. Then, last week she says, “I have a picture in my head: Mahony’s face and my fist,” after the cardinal released his own study of clergy sex abuse.
But standing in her way of a trial to vindicate her anger are the mutual interests of Hennigan and Boucher, the lead trial attorney and liaison to the court for 500 victims. And although they are adversaries, Hennigan and Boucher are on the same side of one critical issue, and that is keeping the negotiations from falling apart. With 300 clients and millions of dollars of his own money already invested in the clergy cases, Boucher faces financial hurdles to delivering on his promise to provide strong individual representation. Having positioned himself as a major player, he has drawn fire from sex-abuse victims and lawyers with smaller client rosters. “How can you represent 300 people who have been through what we have been through?” Dennis says. “Some lawyers want to treat sexual abuse as if it were earthquake damage,” says Goldberg. “But we’re not talking about broken homes. We’re talking about broken lives.”
Leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), including some of Boucher’s own clients, have grown cynical. Lee Bashforth, a leader of SNAP, had a trial date set for late 2003 in a sex-abuse case against Michael Wempe, when the coordinated action scooped up his claim and forced it behind closed doors. “I’m concerned this whole situation benefits the church, which is flexing its legal and financial muscle,” Bashforth, who is not represented by Boucher, says. “We were promised we could stand alone and have our cases evaluated as individuals, on the merits. This hush-hush approach does not meet that goal.”
Says Sanchez, who is a Boucher client, “I think our lawyers like negotiating with [the church’s lawyers]. They look like they want to settle between 70 and 90 percent of the cases so they can have enough money to litigate the rest.” Boucher has had to ratchet down client expectations of getting their day in court, Sanchez says. Recently the lawyer told a group of survivors that only five out of 100 cases contain the smoking-gun documents that were revealed in Boston. And the California budget crisis is squeezing the court budgets, Boucher tells clients. Some are expecting a take-it-or-leave-it deal, with no alternative but a nasty court fight after the scandal has been settled away. “Our lawyers have already threatened us with the budget situation,” says Sanchez, a financial adviser. “I was intimidated by my priest. I don’t need to be intimidated by my own lawyer.”
Boucher sees the standoff in civil court as a long-term chess game. In addition to trying to temper expectations about what the court system can provide, he assumes the most incriminating documents have been destroyed or secreted away to the Vatican, where they will never see the light of day. “They’re either lost, in disarray or cannot be located,” he says. “I wasn’t there when they were shredded, or when [the archdiocese] sent them to Rome, so I cannot say for sure that’s what happened, but that’s what we think.”