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Calif. Diocese Settles Abuse Cases

In the first group settlement of molestation charges against the Roman Catholic Church in California, the Diocese of Orange and 87 victims of clergy abuse have reached an agreement on compensation after two years of negotiations.

Terms of the agreement, announced late Thursday, were not disclosed, and attorney said the judge didn't specify when the terms would be released. Judge Owen Lee Kwong has ordered attorneys and plaintiffs not allowed to discuss the deal's specifics.

"I want to take this opportunity to again extend on behalf of the Diocese of Orange and myself a sincere apology, a request for forgiveness, and a heartfelt hope for reconciliation and healing," said Bishop Tod D. Brown in a statement.

Brown said the settlement would "fairly compensate the victims in a way that allows our church to continue its ministry."

Two years ago, 552 plaintiffs in Boston received a record US$85 million (euro64 million). That amount was curtailed by a Massachusetts law that strictly limits the amount of damages that a charitable organization can be required to pay in a lawsuit.

There is no similar limit in California, but Diocese of Orange settlement, according to church officials, will not bankrupt the diocese or require the closure of any of its 56 parishes.

"No amount of money will replace their lost childhood and teenage years, but this settlement will give them all the ability and opportunity to conclude their claims and help them move forward in their lives," lawyer Ray Boucher said.

The agreement represents the first group settlement of nearly 850 clergy molestation lawsuits pending against the 10 dioceses and two archdioceses in California.

It could serve as a blueprint for the resolution of nearly 500 claims pending against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest diocese, and mark another major step toward soothing the clergy abuse crisis that exploded in Boston in 2002.

Settlement talks regarding the Diocese of Orange had been under way for two years but accelerated dramatically this week after months of stalemate. On Thursday, at least 40 attorneys, plaintiffs and family members of victims spent hours waiting for an announcement.

As word of the settlement spread, some two dozen plaintiffs and their family members who had spent nearly 30 hours this week awaiting a decision cried and hugged one another.

"There's some many emotions coming through — satisfaction, vindication and a numbness," said David Rhomberg, 40, of Santa Ana. "This completely validates what happened and having the diocese come forward is wonderful."

The Diocese of Orange serves more than 1 million Catholics in Orange County. The 87 lawsuits included in the agreement were filed under a 2002 state law that suspended for one year the statute of limitations in molestation cases.

Together, the suits allege sexual misconduct by 30 priests, 11 lay personnel and two nuns.

About 25 of the cases involve alleged abuses that took place before the Diocese of Orange split from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1976. Those plaintiffs also have claims pending against the Los Angeles archdiocese.

The Diocese of Orange lawsuits include 11 claims involving the Rev. Eleuterio Ramos, who admitted before his death to sexually abusing at least 25 boys during 10 years as a parish priest, and nine claims against Siegfried Widera, a priest convicted of molesting a boy in Milwaukee before being transferred to Orange County in 1977.

Widera was removed from the ministry in Orange County in 1985. The California Supreme Court ruled in January that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could be sued for sending him to California without revealing his prior molestation conviction. The Milwaukee archdiocese has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Widera died in May 2003 after leaping from a hotel in Mexico. He had been charged with 42 counts of child molestation in California and Wisconsin.

Elsewhere in the country, the Archdiocese of Louisville also agreed to pay $25.7 million to 27 people, and the Archdiocese of Chicago said it would pay $12 million to 19 people.

By Gillian Flaccus

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