Settlement reached in suit over sex abuse by priest

Settlement reached in suit over sex abuse by priest

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

Yesterday's settlement of nearly $8 million between the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle and 15 men who claimed they were sexually molested as boys by the Rev. James McGreal was heralded by all sides as an encouraging step.

But questions remain about how much the archdiocese is willing to publicly disclose about past abuses by priests.

McGreal, who served in at least 10 parishes and two hospitals in the archdiocese between 1948 and 1988, is considered its most serious offender. Now 80 and living in a supervised church facility in Missouri, he was permanently removed from the ministry in 1988 after the archdiocese disclosed it had received sexual-molestation complaints about him for years.

Yesterday's agreement, in which the archdiocese agreed to pay $7.87 million, was the first major settlement reached in lawsuits filed against it since the clergy sexual-abuse scandal broke nationally in January 2002.

"I think no amount of money will ever erase the heartache and suffering of the victims," said plaintiffs attorney Michael Pfau. "But a settlement like this at least lays the groundwork for closure and healing."

Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett called the agreement "a positive step to heal (the victims') wounds and restore trust for everyone who has been hurt by these regrettable events. ... I deeply regret the pain caused by these events."

Scott Brady, a local member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — SNAP — heralded the agreement as "a positive step in addressing all the victims of abuse by clergy in the Seattle archdiocese."

The 15 men will receive differing sums, based on the seriousness and duration of the abuse they suffered. The amount each individual will receive is confidential.

Mediation talks began Monday. One of the cases had been scheduled to go to trial late next month.

The settlement covers 15 of the 16 people who have filed suits against McGreal. The archdiocese was unable to reach an agreement with the 16th person.

That individual has indicated "it really wasn't about money for him," Pfau said. "He wanted to go to trial in order to hold the archdiocese accountable for its actions." That trial is scheduled for March. Six of the men involved in yesterday's settlement were former altar boys who said they were sexually abused when McGreal served at Seattle's St. Catherine Church from 1971 to 1977. They said the priest sexually assaulted them several times a week for years.

An additional eight plaintiffs had alleged that McGreal molested them during his tenure at St. Catherine or at St. Michael Church in Olympia, where he was pastor from 1966 to 1971.

In 1988, church officials said McGreal had been removed from at least two parishes and a Catholic hospital for pedophilia problems since 1977.

Recently filed court documents claim that archdiocese officials began receiving complaints about McGreal in the late 1960s and that McGreal had disclosed to a counselor that he had molested hundreds of victims. Church officials said that the first they knew about the complaints against McGreal came between 1969 and 1973 and that when Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen found out in 1977, he sent McGreal to treatment.

McGreal could not be reached for comment yesterday, and his attorney did not return telephone calls.

"This is probably the largest group of victims and certainly one of the most serious cases" facing the archdiocese, said archdiocese spokesman Dennis O'Leary. "James McGreal is the most serious offender that we've had. We're pleased we could come to some agreement and move on."

Five insurance carriers will pay for $6.87 million of the $7.87 million, O'Leary said. The remaining $1 million will come from the archdiocese's self-insurance program.

The terms of the settlement say that only the individual amounts received by the plaintiffs must remain confidential. There is no confidentiality agreement on anything else the plaintiffs might choose to disclose.

But the settlement doesn't mean other information gathered in the cases — anything from allegations against other priests to treatment records — is publicly available. Those remain under a court protective seal.

Archdiocese attorney Mike Patterson said the seal is in place because "one individual still has a pending lawsuit," a reference to the 16th plaintiff.

Attorneys for both sides agreed in December to a court order that would prevent naming any further victims other than the plaintiffs and any accused priests other than McGreal.

The order also seals from the public all information regarding the facts or substance of any allegation against McGreal or other priests and any investigation, evaluation or report made by or on behalf of any victims, or regarding any priest.

Future cases are also likely to fall under such a protective order. They're "pretty standard in most cases involving any sort of child sexual abuse," Patterson said, saying such seals are meant to protect the privacy of the victims and the accused.

But Brady, of Seattle SNAP, considers them part of the secrecy that has allowed such abuse to remain hidden and go unchecked for decades.

"They will not do the full disclosure still," he said. "There are a lot more victims out there that the archdiocese doesn't talk about."

The Spokane Diocese last week dropped its request for a protective order that would ban plaintiffs and their attorneys from revealing publicly any pretrial information gathered in the cases against the Rev. Patrick O'Donnell.

O'Donnell, who served in the Spokane Diocese and at St. Paul's Church in Seattle, has been named in lawsuits by at least 20 people claiming sexual molestation. O'Donnell was forced out of active ministry in the mid-1980s and most recently practiced psychology in Bellevue.

The Spokane Diocese backed off from pursuing the court seal after local media intervened in court. The Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general at the Spokane Diocese, said the furor over the diocese's seeking of a court seal was turning into "a media circus."

Dublinski, said church officials had wanted a protective order to guard the privacy of "uninvolved third parties." Plaintiffs attorneys had made broad inquiries about misconduct, some of which may be irrelevant to sexual abuse, he said.

Tim Kosnoff, a plaintiffs attorney in the O'Donnell cases, said the Spokane diocese's move was "a positive one and I hope that it reflects a true change of attitude about the need for openness and transparency."

The Seattle settlement came two days after the Boston Archdiocese, epicenter of the scandal, agreed to pay $85 million to 552 people who claimed sexual abuse by clergy.

The Seattle archdiocese revealed earlier this year that 47 priests serving in the archdiocese since the mid-1950s have been accused of sexual abuse of minors. Thirteen of those cases — all diocesan priests who are either retired or on administrative leave — have been or are being reviewed by the archdiocese's special review panel.

The Seattle archdiocese is facing several active lawsuits involving alleged abuse committed before 1981. The archdiocese says it is not aware of any allegations of sexual abuse of minors committed by its clergy since new policies on sexual abuse were put into place in 1988.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or [email protected]

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