Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Abuse tribunal begins its work

Issue: How to disburse $3M

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati tribunal that will evaluate claims of clergy sexual abuse begins work today on its most difficult task: putting a dollar value on the suffering of victims.

The three-member panel will meet today and in the coming weeks with lawyers and others who can help them devise a system to disburse up to $3 million to Catholics abused by priests.

They will, in essence, try to come up with a formula to measure physical and mental anguish.

As daunting as that task may be, tribunal members say the success or failure of their work hinges on their ability to be fair and compassionate to victims who already have suffered for years or even decades.

Victims and their advocates are not optimistic. They say the Archdiocese of Cincinnati created the tribunal and the $3 million settlement fund in hopes of heading off lawsuits that ultimately could cost the church much more.

"I will not be taking part in it," said Christy Miller, who has claimed in a lawsuit that a priest abused her almost 20 years ago. "It's a slap in the face."

But the tribunal members, who were appointed by the church and the Hamilton County prosecutor's office, say they are committed to finding a way to fairly distribute the money available.

"It's going to be challenging," said Ann Marie Tracey, a tribunal member and a former Hamilton County Common Pleas judge. "How do you ever put a dollar value to a person's suffering?"

Tracey and her fellow panel members, former Judge Thomas Nurre and lawyer Robert Stachler, think they may find the answer to that question in other cities that have endured clergy abuse scandals.

Dioceses in Boston, Louisville and several other communities already have created settlement funds or are in negotiations to do so.

Cincinnati's fund is different from most because it was not established to resolve specific lawsuits. Instead, it requires victims to drop their lawsuits in order to make a claim before the tribunal.

It is unclear how many victims may make a claim.

Although the circumstances are different than in other cities, tribunal members say the systems used to distribute money in those dioceses could become models for Cincinnati.

"We want to come up with a fair distribution," Stachler said. "And that may not be as easy as just saying it."

One of the most useful comparisons may be the distribution method in the Louisville diocese, which settled lawsuits for a total of about $25 million.

Matthew Garretson, a Cincinnati lawyer, created the system used in Louisville and has become a nationally known expert in the field. It's an unusual specialty - only a few other lawyers in the country do it - and it's why Garretson will be one of the first experts to meet with tribunal members today.

Tracey said Garretson or someone like him might eventually be hired as a "special master" to oversee the distribution of funds.

"This (settlement fund) is a rare bird," Tracey said. "We'll have to pull people together who have had a lot of different experiences."

Garretson knows from his experience in Louisville that the job of assessing the value of each abuse claim will be difficult.

"It's never easy," he said. "You never want to be in the situation of having victims justify their suffering."

The key, he said, is to come up with objective standards that can be applied to every claim, regardless of its severity. In Louisville, that meant creating a three-tiered system that ranked each claim according to the nature of the abuse.

Each category listed specific types of abuse, so it was clear to the diocese and to victims how individual claims would be ranked. And each category included a range of dollar amounts to allow some flexibility from case to case.

Garretson said the model works because it creates a workable, objective system to measure claims.

He said it may be impossible to adequately compensate everyone, especially in abuse cases that cause so much emotional damage. But the goal of the special master is to be as fair as possible with the money on hand.

Lawyers who have worked on class action settlements say a skilled special master is crucial.

"You want to make those precious dollars as useful to the clients as you can," said Al Gerhardstein, who recently represented African-Americans who reached a $4 million racial profiling settlement with Cincinnati police. "Getting people to a satisfaction level about money is tough stuff."

Although she doesn't plan to participate, Miller said she and other alleged victims appreciate the difficulty of developing a fair process.

Whatever system the tribunal chooses, she said, it should include a victims' advocate who can help people make an effective claim and get as much compensation as they can.

"This could be a pretty frightening situation for victims," Miller said. "They're going to have to substantiate their claim, and that could be a daunting process."

Tribunal members recognize that after waiting so long for church leaders to acknowledge their suffering, many victims are skeptical they will ever be fairly compensated.

All the more reason, the panelists say, to move quickly to establish an equitable system. In the coming weeks, they hope to establish most of the rules for how claims should be made, how they will be evaluated and how money will be disbursed.

"We want to move this along as expeditiously as possible," Stachler said.


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