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Anyone who wanted to know how heavily insurers figure into the settlement picture in the Northern California clergy sex abuse cases needed only to be in Superior Court Judge David Hunter’s Hayward courtroom this week. On Monday, about 60 attorneys had stuffed themselves into the arcing rows of chairs when the court clerk ordered anyone representing an insurance company to wait down the hall in an empty courtroom. All but a dozen people stood as laughter broke out in the room. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw had ordered attorneys for the insurance companies to attend the mandatory conference. Hunter — one of several mediators in the consolidated Northern California cases — met with attorney after attorney in private chambers, straight through the lunch hour and into the afternoon Monday. The conference continued Tuesday. Downstairs, meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard met with attorneys in Thatcher v. Doe 1, one of two Northern California cases that began trial Monday. Opening statements are expected next week. Last year, about 150 cases involving Northern California churches were carved out of more than 800 lawsuits filed statewide. The Northern California cases are known as the Clergy III cases, while the 140 cases consolidated in the San Diego and Santa Bernardino areas are called Clergy II and the more than 500 cases consolidated in the Los Angeles area are Clergy I. Rick Simons, lead plaintiff attorney in the Clergy III cases, continued to distance himself from speculation over a possible settlement. “I’m not even involved,” he said. “I’m too busy shoveling coal in the boiler to see where the train is going.” Simons, of the Hayward firm Furtado Jaspovice & Simons, represents Bob Thatcher, a former altar boy who claimed he was abused by Robert Ponciroli, a former priest at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch. Thatcher’s brother is also a claimant. Allen Ruby of San Francisco’s Ruby & Schofield, an attorney for the Oakland Diocese, seemed equally focused on the Thatcher case, not settlement talks. “We’re in trial. We’re proceeding,” Ruby said. “If the cases get settled upstairs, well, they get settled.” Simons’ partner, Martin Jaspovice, who has been working on possible settlements, declined to discuss the nature of the talks but said the mandatory process was a positive step for the Thatcher case. “It creates pressure,” Jaspovice said during a break in Monday’s conference. “Nobody on their side wants the trial to go forward. That’s my perspective. But we sure do, and we’re trying to get it done.” Sheppard will hear motions in limine in the Thatcher case today, followed by jury selection Thursday. Also Monday, in San Francisco Superior Court, Kavanaugh v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco got underway, the only other Clergy III case to reach the trial stage. In the Kavanaugh case, the San Francisco archbishop is accused of covering up for a now-deceased priest who allegedly molested 10 children, most of them altar boys, at a San Jose elementary school during the 1970s. Plaintiff attorney Larry Drivon of Stockton said he plans to deliver opening statements March 16. Monday’s settlement conference was the latest attempt to settle about 50 cases against the Oakland Diocese before trial. Mediation proceedings began a month ago for the approximately 150 claims against dioceses in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Monterey and Stockton. No settlements have been reached. In December, the Catholic Diocese of Orange County agreed to a $100 million settlement with 90 plaintiffs in the Clergy I cases, the largest such settlement ever involving priests accused of sexual molestation. Insurers were ordered to pay half that amount, but there have been recent signs some won’t go down without a fight. Most of the Clergy I cases remain in settlement talks. In Los Angeles, insurers sued the Catholic Archdiocese 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. Settlement talks in Clergy II are ongoing.

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