Friday, August 24, 2007
A federal bankruptcy judge on Friday ordered immediate jury trials in more than 40 sex-abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.
Trials scheduled in state court in San Diego for five cases had been suspended in February when the diocese abruptly filed for bankruptcy protection the night before the first trial was slated to begin.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Louise DeCarl Adler's ruling on the 42 lawsuits is a victory for about 150 people who claim they were sexually abused by priests as children.
Their lawyers told the judge Thursday that reactivating those trials was the only way to get the diocese into a settlement after more than three years of fruitless negotiations in state and federal courts.
"This just ratchets up the pressure on everyone to get the cases settled," said Irwin Zalkin, an attorney who represents 54 accusers. "Everyone understands it could go any way in a jury trial."
The San Diego diocese has offered about $94 million to settle the claims as part of its bankruptcy reorganization plan. Plaintiffs' attorneys are seeking a settlement of about $200 million.
Attorneys for the diocese have argued that jury trials would slow progress toward a settlement and may give unfair priority to the claims of plaintiffs whose cases went to trial first.
The judge rejected the diocese's argument that she could return trials to state court only under "exceptional circumstances," saying she had broader discretion.
Even if the church were correct, "clearly this tsunami of child sex abuse cases against the Roman Catholic clergy would qualify as 'exceptional,'" Adler wrote.
Some plaintiffs welcomed the renewed possibility of trial.
"My hope is that they don't settle and we go to trial," said Diane Williams, a 49-year-old mother who says she was raped as a girl by a monsignor at a church-run orphanage. "I think these things need to get out, but I don't think the diocese will let that happen."
Lawyers for the diocese told the judge Thursday that the fastest way to resolve the claims was for a federal district judge to determine a fair payment instead of letting juries in sex-abuse trials consider cases one by one.
"We had hoped that the judge would agree with us that the process the bankruptcy court had set in place was the most expeditious way to get these cases settled," said Susan Boswell, an attorney for the diocese. "She obviously didn't agree with us."
Adler's ruling puts the cases back in state courts. She will decide the order in which to release each of the 42 cases for trial, likely beginning with those that were already close to being heard last spring, said Ryan DiMaria, an attorney for a man whose case was supposed to be the second in line.
Trials could begin in as little as 60 days, plaintiffs' attorneys said.
With nearly 1 million Catholics and holdings throughout San Diego County, the diocese is the largest and wealthiest of the five U.S. dioceses to have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection under the shadow of civil claims over sexual abuse.
Dioceses in Spokane, Wash., Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz., have already emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Davenport, Iowa, diocese, which faces claims from more than 150 people, is still in proceedings.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese settled 508 cases for $660 million in July, two days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the first of 15 trials involving 172 abuse claimants.
The Orange County, Calif., diocese agreed to settle 90 claims for $100 million in 2004 after a judge promised to set trial dates and begin the discovery process if settlement talks collapsed. Bishop Tod D. Brown later said he couldn't risk a trial in a state where a jury once awarded $30 million to two people who claimed they were sexually abused by clergy.