A record-breaking, US$100 million clergy sex abuse settlement between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and 87 plaintiffs brought some measure of relief to long-suffering families, but legal experts differed over whether the blockbuster deal would help resolve a huge backlog of cases in California.
The agreement, reached late Thursday and expected to be finalized as soon as tomorrow, surpasses the previous record of US$85 million awarded to 552 victims of clergy abuse in Boston last year, a participant in settlement negotiations said.
It wasn't clear how much of the settlement insurers would pay and how much the diocese would provide, but church officials said the deal would not bankrupt the diocese or require the closure of any of its 55 parishes.
Superior Court Judge Owen Lee Kwong has prohibited lawyers in the case from discussing the amount of the settlement.
Legal experts not involved in the case said the deal could be a blueprint for mediation underway in about 500 lawsuits still pending against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Another 300 cases are pending throughout the rest of the state.
"One signal it sends is this can be done. A second signal is if this can be done, at least some dioceses will come up with big bucks. Both of those things are important," said Richard Marcus, law professor at the Hastings College of Law at the University of California, San Francisco.
The significance of the settlement for dioceses outside of California is unclear. The amount of payouts in clergy abuse cases depends on many local factors, including the wealth of individual dioceses, whether its insurers will cover any of the costs, the extent of the molestation and whether local church officials took action to end the abuse.
Also, alleged victims in other states have not had the same opportunity as those in California to bring forward old claims. While some states extended the statute of limitations for bringing abuse claims in response to the abuse crisis, California was the only one that outright abolished the restriction, even though it was just for one year.
Plaintiffs in the Diocese of Orange cases were relieved to see the end of two years of grueling mediation. They thanked Bishop Tod Brown for his courage and willingness to resolve their cases.
"It's like a big weight lifted off my shoulders. Finally it's stopped, it's over," said Max Fisher, a 40-year-old plaintiff from Anaheim. "Last night, Bishop Brown came up to me personally and apologized, and that meant more to me than anything."