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As Northern California’s clergy sex abuse cases head toward trial next month, the pressure to settle the mammoth litigation is mounting. Mediation proceedings open today in the so-called Clergy III cases, about 150 claims against dioceses in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Monterey and Stockton. While the church says it is eager to put the cases behind it, the insurers who would bankroll a good part of any payout are reportedly far less enthusiastic. Foley & Lardner’s Stephen McFeely, who represents the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, said his client “strongly wants to settle.” But sources close to the settlement talks say there’s been little progress between defendants and their insurers and that tensions between them are running high. Robert Levy, a Barger & Wolen partner who represents several subsidiaries of insurance giant American International Group Inc. in the litigation, declined comment. The general settlement climate seemed to improve in December when the Catholic Diocese of Orange County reached a $100 million deal with 90 plaintiffs in Clergy I cases. It was the largest such settlement ever, eclipsing the $85 million that the Archdiocese of Boston had agreed to pay to 552 alleged victims in 2002. But tensions between insurers and the church exploded last week when Levy, on behalf of three insurance companies, sued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to force it to share information about priests accused of sexual abuse. The suit claimed that insurers needed more factual information about individual cases in order to evaluate whether or how much to pay out. The L.A. archdiocese faces more than 500 sexual abuse claims. McFeely, the Oakland diocese attorney, said he doubted there would be a similar action by insurers against the church in Northern California. Levy and attorneys for several other insurance companies will join in the mediation that opens today. Stockton attorney Laurence Drivon will represent the plaintiffs. If the cases fail to settle, the first batch will move to trial March 7 in Hayward and San Francisco. The roughly 150 cases in Clergy III were carved out of more than 800 lawsuits statewide last year and coordinated by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw. Plaintiff attorneys say the consolidation of the lawsuits — initially pushed by the defense — actually strengthened their side because incidents of abuse can be linked together among victims. Lead plaintiff attorney Rick Simons of the Hayward firm Furtado, Jaspovice & Simons also credits a 2002 state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for seeking civil damages in abuse cases. “[The law] allowed us to do parallel discovery into multiple simultaneous perpetrators and get to the real heart of these cases, which is the institutional policies and procedures that allowed it to happen,” Simons said. While Simons appears eager to go to trial, many of the Clergy III cases involve alleged abuse dating back decades. Experts caution that trying such cases is particularly tricky. Santa Clara University School of Law professor Gerald Uelmen, a criminal law expert who conducted a survey some years ago, found that sexual molestation cases presented the biggest hurdles when time had passed since the alleged crimes. “There’s no question that litigating cases that may be 20 or 30 years old becomes very difficult on both sides,” Uelmen said. “There are enormous problems with proof, of corroborating testimony or challenging it, when that much time has passed.” The Northern California mediation will focus first on the Santa Rosa claims, to be heard by former Sonoma County Superior Court Judge William Bettinelli. Later, former Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Coleman Fannin is expected to mediate the San Francisco claims, while acting Alameda County Superior Court Judge David Hunter will deal with claims against the Oakland diocese. Regardless of the mediation efforts, Simons said he’s preparing for trial. “I’m staying out of [the mediation] myself,” Simons said. “There are different opinions as to how fruitful it might be. My role is to have the process keep moving forward. � If the cases are settled, fine, I’ll stop.”

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