RAY BOUCHER, THE EMBATTLED plaintiffs’ attorney for more than 300 victims of Catholic-priest molestation, emerged from a small conference room at the Biltmore Hotel and wanted a hug.
After five years of bitter litigation against an obstinate religious institution with an unrelenting will to keep its secrets hidden, who could blame him?
Hours earlier, Cardinal Roger Mahony had slipped in and out of court through a side door, having just inked an eye-popping $660 million settlement of more than 500 cases alleging the most heinous act imaginable: the sexual abuse of children.
Less than a mile away, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley insinuated that Mahony and leaders of the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese had committed crimes the D.A. could not prove, such as shielding pedophile priests and obstructing justice.
Cooley’s comments sounded like a vain attempt to throw gas on the dying embers of a conflict, but they seemed to prove, once and for all, the limitations of the justice system in resolving moral crises.
“You can hug me,” Boucher told a reporter, his spirit drained, as victims and their lawyers mingled in an adjacent room that Boucher had reserved for media inquiries and a gathering of damaged souls.
Out in the hallway, Boucher’s partner in litigation, Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, ruddy and hoarse, was making plans to go fishing in Costa Rica with Manny Vega, an Oxnard police officer who had been a leading voice among survivors of abuse.
Vega and Drivon were visibly older and heavier than when Drivon and Boucher went to Sacramento in 2002 and lobbied for a change in state law that allowed hundreds of victims of sexual abuse to join in an unprecedented mass litigation regardless of how old their claims were.
Asked how he felt, Boucher replied: “Numb. Empty. Gratified. The system provided some justice. It’s inadequate. We’ll never know the full story. But it’s time.” Then, like a punch-drunk boxer at the end of the 15th round, he said he still harbored a desire to go to trial.
Despite his lingering desire, it just was not possible to pursue trial, he explained. Last week, a client died of heart failure under the strain of waiting for a day in court that might never come, he said. It was not fair to deny closure to those with weaker claims and uncertain physical health so that the stout yet damaged could seek justice before a jury.
Boucher seemed to be saying that the same victims who came out of the woodwork for a chance to rectify older cases of abuse — thanks to his maneuvering in Sacramento — were the main reason for ending the fight.
And still, at this point, few could argue with him. Those conversations took place weeks ago, as the prospect of closure loomed. It got ugly, according to some of his clients, but even the staunchest advocates for truth and justice were accepting the end now too.
MOST OF THEM KNEW LONG AGO that shocking courtroom revelations and Mahony’s ouster were never going to happen. True, they settled for quite a bit of money, but also for the realization that their experiences together, at times at odds with one another, and with Boucher, would have to do.
“I wanted to force out the truth, but we’re all in it together,” says Lee Bashforth, a fiery leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “The best way to end the suffering is to end it together. Even if we had gone to court, it would have been the same old crap,” he continues, referring to the scorched-earth legal tactics that the church used to avoid turning over priests’ files, after inducing the victims’ lawyers in 2003 to engage in voluntary mediation of hundreds of claims.
Had they been hoodwinked?
It wasn’t that simple, Bashforth says. “We thought the trial system was the way to get the truth out,” he says. “But we got pitted against one another. Today is bittersweet. No matter what, I’ll always be trying to make amends to that little boy [I was] at age 7.”
Steven Sanchez, a survivor of sex abuse and a leading advocate, had inspired his family in the face of such pain. His wife, Suzanne, and sister, Cynthia Phelps, were proud of him for his leadership.
“I’ve known Steven for 20 years, and we’ve been married for 15,” his wife says. “I just found out about his abuse five years ago. I always knew he was an extraordinary guy. He did what he had to do.” Phelps adds, “To take a horrible situation and to help others in their healing, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Much can be made of Mahony’s role in bringing these people together. But if anything, the end to the litigation shows that it is now — and maybe always was — a private matter between Catholics and the leaders of their church.
After all, priest sexual abuse dates back 1,600 years, according to church scholars. And yet some Catholic leaders, including Mahony, say they have been aware of it only in the last couple of decades. Mahony made this assertion under oath, at a deposition in 2004.