updated 7/22/2004 10:06:26 PM ET 2004-07-23T02:06:26

The Springfield Diocese on Thursday reached a proposed settlement worth more than $7 million with 46 people who accused priests of molesting them when they were children.

Twenty-two of the alleged victims had sued the diocese. The others had complained to the church about having been abused but never took legal action against the diocese or their attackers.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs will present the proposal to their clients, who would have 14 days to enter into binding arbitration to determine how much money each will receive, the diocese said.

Most of the alleged victims say they were abused by defrocked priest Richard Lavigne in the late 1960s and 1970s. The others have accused about 20 other priests — a handful of whom are dead — of abuse that ranged from the 1950s to the early 1990s.

While Lavigne is the only accused priest within the diocese to have been defrocked by the Vatican, the others have been removed from ministry by the diocese.

Many of the plaintiffs — mostly men — have told similar stories about being molested. In many instances, the accused priests had befriended the alleged victims’ families and threatened the children if they told anyone about the abuse.

Besides the $7 million, the diocese said it planned to contribute proceeds from the sale of two pieces of property. The alleged victims will also receive lifetime counseling and other services.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Marty Bono, of Chicopee, who says he was molested by a priest in 1971. “I’ve been crying ever since I heard.”

The settlement came three months after Bishop Timothy McDonnell was installed as head of the western Massachusetts diocese. He replaced Bishop Thomas Dupre, who resigned amid accusations that he had molested two boys in the 1970s. A grand jury is investigating those claims.

Days after being installed as bishop, McDonnell met with mediator Paul Finn, who had helped broker a $90 million settlement between the Boston Archdiocese and more than 550 clergy sex-abuse victims.

The new bishop received widespread praise throughout the diocese for his willingness to help heal a church shocked by the abuse allegations against Dupre.

Thursday’s settlement is the second made by the Springfield Diocese with alleged clergy abuse victims. In 1994, the church paid $1.4 million to 17 men who accused Lavigne of molesting them.

Lavigne, who was defrocked by the Vatican in November, was sentenced to 10 years’ probation after pleading guilty to molesting two boys in 1992. He is also the only suspect identified in the 1972 slaying of altar boy Danny Croteau.

Croteau’s family believes Lavigne abused their son and killed the boy to stop him from reporting it. The case remains unsolved, although prosecutors say it is still under investigation. Lavigne has maintained his innocence.

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