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Church abuse cases in Calif. poised to accelerate

Hundreds of sexual abuse claims targeting the Roman Catholic Church in California have converged into one of the most complex civil litigation cases the state’s judicial system has ever faced.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hundreds of sexual abuse claims targeting the Roman Catholic Church in California have converged into one of the most complex civil litigation cases the state’s judicial system has ever faced.

More than 850 alleged victims are suing dioceses throughout the state, with millions of dollars in potential settlements at stake in a legal battle that involves more than 300 attorneys and dozens of church insurers. The scope is so vast that the lawsuits have been lumped geographically into three consolidated cases, known simply as Clergy I, Clergy II and Clergy III.

After nearly two years, the pace of the complicated legal drama is finally starting to accelerate. Some trial dates have been set, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is expected to be deposed by year’s end in cases related to his tenure in the Stockton and Fresno dioceses and a hearing on public access to internal church documents is scheduled for Wednesday.

Legal analysts and attorneys agree that the developments, all of which involve Northern California cases, will affect settlement negotiations that have dragged on for months in Southern California — though exactly how is less certain.

Trials in a handful of Northern California cases, scheduled for March, May and June, could prompt settlements beforehand. Others say that, if there are a few multimillion-dollar jury verdicts, they could chill the ongoing talks in Southern California by giving plaintiffs inflated expectations and exhausting church resources.

“Depending on the circumstances, trials could bust loose settlements or it could lock the church in,” said Stephen Yeazell, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in complex civil litigation. “It’s going to change the calculus no matter what.”

Attorneys for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which faces about 490 civil cases, said it would take more than a handful of trials to discern a pattern that would shape a settlement.

The dioceses involved in the Southern California talks — Los Angeles and Orange (Clergy I), and San Bernardino and San Diego (Clergy II) — account for more than 80 percent of all clergy-abuse lawsuits filed statewide.

In the two years since Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned as archbishop at the height of a clergy abuse crisis there, California has emerged as the nation’s new epicenter of the scandal that has shaken the church.

Door opened by controversial law
Much of the attention results from a 2002 state law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for filing molestation lawsuits, opening the door for hundreds of claims by people who say they were sexually abused by Catholic clergy. The number of cases filed against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone is just slightly less than the number filed in Boston, where the archdiocese settled with more than 550 plaintiffs for $90 million.

“In some respects, I think this is the most complex case that state courts have had to deal with,” said Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in Southern California. “It is really unique to have the confluence of potentially explosive cases in one location against such a limited number of defendants — essentially one.”

The judge supervising the 160 clergy abuse lawsuits in Northern California (Clergy III) has kept his docket on a steady march toward trial, while in Southern California the nearly 700 cases entered a closed-door mediation process nearly two years ago. The difference in approach was necessary because of the sheer number of cases in Southern California, Boucher said.

Yet in clearing a path for trial in Northern California in recent months, Alameda County Judge Ronald Sabraw has ruled on key constitutional questions that touch on tenets central to all California clergy-abuse litigation.

The most important question challenges the constitutionality of the state law that opened the door for the deluge of lawsuits. If the law were found unconstitutional, the nearly 860 claims statewide against the church could be thrown out.

Church attorneys say the law unfairly targets the church and was drafted by the same trial lawyers now hired by plaintiffs to press their cases. In July, Sabraw ruled that the state law was constitutional in almost all cases, and allowed all but a handful of the Northern California claims to go forward.

Documents sealed
Sabraw also ordered confidential documents on accused Northern California priests turned over to plaintiffs’ attorneys in August — a move made over freedom-of-religion objections by the church. The next day, the judge placed a temporary seal on the documents to prevent the attorneys from making them public.

That order expires Wednesday. Media attorneys representing the New York Times Corp. and the San Francisco Chronicle will ask Sabraw to give their clients’ access — a move that could prove devastating for the church.

Paul Balestracci, an attorney for the Diocese of Stockton, said he worried the public would distort information should it become available.

“There’s the sensationalism about the cases in general and that’s a big issue,” he said.