Thursday, November 20, 2003

Settlement deal likely in church abuse case

Plea would end criminal inquiry into archdiocese

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is expected to enter a plea to a criminal charge today as part of a deal that would end an investigation into clergy sexual abuse.

The deal is the product of several days of settlement talks between church lawyers and Hamilton County prosecutors, who have spent nearly two years investigating the archdiocese's handling of abuse cases.

The deal is believed to be the first in the country to require a diocese or a church official to plead to criminal charges related to the abuse crisis.

Attorneys on both sides met Wednesday with Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus to discuss the status of their negotiations and to schedule a court hearing for this afternoon.

"They didn't tell me what the deal was," Judge Niehaus said. "It's between them."

The meeting with the judge is the first indication the case was moving toward a plea deal, as opposed to an out-of-court settlement. Prosecutors and church lawyers declined comment on the case and potential charges involved, but several plea scenarios are possible.

One is a deal in which the archdiocese - rather than an individual church official - would plead guilty or no contest to criminal charges.

A guilty plea would require the church to acknowledge wrongdoing, while a no-contest plea would not require such an admission.

No matter how the plea deal plays out this afternoon, it will likely resolve all pending issues related to prosecutor Mike Allen's criminal investigation of the archdiocese.

The deal will not, however, affect pending lawsuits filed during the past year by people who claim they were victims of abusive priests.

Those suits, which involve more than 50 alleged victims and at least four priests, would have to be settled or resolved in court on a case-by-case basis. Three additional lawsuits against some of those priests were filed Wednesday.

The rapid progress toward resolution in the criminal case began early this week as prosecutors prepared to convene a grand jury to investigate how the archdiocese responded - or failed to respond - to abuse allegations.

Prosecutors agreed to postpone grand jury proceedings pending the outcome of settlement talks. Church officials, meanwhile, agreed to give prosecutors some documents related to abuse claims.

Church officials had previously refused to turn over those documents, arguing they were confidential communication with their lawyers.

The movement toward a more comprehensive deal picked up steam Wednesday when Allen, Assistant Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier and archdiocese attorney Mark VanderLaan met behind closed doors with Niehaus.

The lawyers would not comment as they left the courtroom, but the judge confirmed a deal was in the works.

Although no criminal charges have been filed, the case was assigned to Niehaus as part of a process known as a "pre-roll." This process allows a case to be randomly assigned to a judge before an indictment or criminal charge is filed.

The process also clears the way for defendants to plead guilty or no contest to a crime, even though they have not yet been formally charged.

The criminal investigation in Hamilton County began last year after Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk acknowledged that the archdiocese continued to employ five priests despite past allegations of abuse.

All five have since been suspended. But until recently, prosecutors and church officials had clashed often over the church's handling of abuse claims and its refusal to hand over some documents.

A grand jury earlier this year indicted two priests on abuse charges, but the new grand jury was expected to focus more on church officials who supervised abusive priests than on the priests themselves.


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