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Chart: Looking at the Settlements With the last remaining sex abuse claims against the Northern California Catholic diocese now set for trial, Bay Area lawyers and judges are getting credit for reaching a remarkably speedy resolution. Clergy sex abuse complaints flooded California courts in 2003 after state legislators temporarily lifted the statute of limitations, allowing rape and molestation charges that were many years, some even decades, old. Yet while the Southern California cases have languished from delays � some may take years more to resolve � many in Northern California settled last year, while a few have already gone to trial and the rest are entering the final phase of litigation. The timely conclusion is no miracle, say lawyers for abuse victims and the church. Rather, they say, it’s the result of a determined effort from the trial coordination judge, Alameda County’s Ronald Sabraw, lawyers on both sides of the case and a basic monetary agreement to guide settlement talks. “Part of the purpose of these cases was reconciliation and closure, and that’s done at the end of the case, not in the middle,” said Richard Simons, the plaintiffs’ liaison counsel. From the outset, the clergy sex abuse cases were viewed as so emotional that some attorneys favored settlements to spare the victims from having to rehash the experience all over again. “I’ve handled child molestation cases, janitors at a school, things like that. As devastating as that is, as horrible as that is, it doesn’t compare to when the person is a priest,” said plaintiff attorney Mary Alexander. Lawyers for the diocese said they also wanted to see a quick resolution. “The church wanted the people who were victims to have available counseling and be able to proceed in their lives with hope and opportunity,” said Thomas Beatty, lawyer for the Oakland Diocese. From the time the Northern California cases were coordinated in April 2004, attorneys said Sabraw facilitated a quick resolution. To begin with, the caseload was overwhelming. Plaintiffs filed 150 sex abuse claims against the Northern California diocese and 850 claims statewide in 2003. To deal with the large number of claims, those involving Southern California dioceses were split into groups called Clergy I and Clergy II, while those in Northern California were grouped as Clergy III cases. Last month, Sabraw set trial dates for the 18 remaining Clergy III cases, many of which already have tentative settlements on the table. Earlier, Sabraw pushed through summary judgment motions, demurrers and evidentiary hearings. “What Judge Sabraw says, and it’s absolutely true, [is that] trial dates settle cases,” Simons, of Hayward firm Furtado, Jaspovice & Simons, said. Sometimes, so do other trials. SETTING ‘REALISTIC BENCHMARKS’ Last spring, Simons asked a jury to return $9 million in compensatory damages and $27 million in punitive damages for two brothers who were abused by a priest in the Oakland diocese. When the jury returned less than $2 million in total damages, Simons was forced to adjust his assumptions about the value of each case. “Our research showed that there was a lot of concern among the respective jurors that with so many victims out there, if they gave so much to one there would be nothing left for others,” Simons said. Ultimately, lawyers settled on a base value of about $1 million per victim, a figure that would vary depending on the specific circumstances in each case. Diocese attorney Beatty said the early verdicts set “realistic benchmarks” for cases headed toward a settlement. “The verdicts were nowhere near as large as the plaintiffs bar expected them to be. That was probably the No. 1 catalyst for settlement,” he said. Beatty also credited JAMS mediator William Bettinelli, who participated in Clergy III cases along with Coleman Fannin, formerly of JAMS, and retired Alameda County Judge David Hunter. Paul Gaspari, liaison counsel for the Northern California diocese, said he had first hoped to reach a global settlement that would resolve all sex abuse claims at once and avoid taking any of the cases to trial. Once that approach fell short � a stew fallen victim to too many cooks � the Clergy III defendants shifted gears. “We started looking at the case on a diocese-by-diocese or client-by-client basis. That proved to be the way,” Gaspari said. Following this strategy, Gaspari said, Clergy III cases proceeded steadily toward a resolution. Compared to Southern California, where Gaspari still has 40 cases pending, “we moved at lightning speed,” he said. Once settlement talks picked up steam, attorneys for the abuse victims said the insurance carriers posed bigger challenges to church lawyers than they did themselves. “Lawyers for the insurance companies were oftentimes overly aggressive, sometimes brutally so,” said Jeffrey Anderson, a lead plaintiff attorney based in St. Paul, Minn. Oakland diocese attorney Stephen McFeely pointed to several factors that made some of his cases more difficult to defend than other litigation, most notably that everyone who may have witnessed the abuse � except the victims � is dead. McFeely said dealings between the diocese and insurance companies were more nuanced than how Anderson put it. But “there’s no question that the defense in these cases had to fight two battles,” said McFeely, who defended the Oakland diocese in federal court against attempts by insurance companies to skirt payouts. Though lawyers for abuse victims and the diocese in Northern California roundly praised the way Clergy III cases were managed, not all Southern California lawyers are ready to borrow a page from the playbook just yet. Raymond Boucher, liaison counsel for abuse victims in Southern California, said the delays in the Clergy I and Clergy II cases are attributed mostly to the huge number of victims there. Boucher said some southern dioceses, like the one in San Diego, would have to liquidate assets to cover the liability if settlements averaged $1 million, as they have in Northern California. But as costly as a $1 million-per-victim settlement would be for the diocese, Boucher said he’s not ready to limit abuse victims’ claims to the Northern California standard. Asked whether he expects to collect that much when all is said and done in Clergy I and Clergy II, Boucher said, “I think we’ll do better.”

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