Friday, February 6, 2004

Judge wants last abuse cases settled

Diocese seeks class decertification

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BURLINGTON - A new judge's first request in the emotionally charged class-action, sex-abuse case against the Diocese of Covington: Try to set aside your differences and settle this case out of court.

Class-action and diocesan attorneys must return to Boone Circuit Court April 6 with a mechanism to settle the claims. If the two sides can't agree on one way to do it, they are to each propose their own way of resolving the claims.

"We will do our best to meet the judge's request," said diocesan attorney Carrie Huff of Chicago. "I'm not optimistic we will agree upon a mechanism."

Huff, who was twice heckled by people in the courtroom, told Judge John Potter that the diocese plans to formally ask that the class be decertified. She told the judge she believed the remaining claims could be settled individually but not in the structure of a class-action suit.

"He (the judge) is trying to move the case to a resolution," said class attorney Bob Steinberg of the Cincinnati firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley. "It is what a judge should try to do. We are very happy with that."

Steinberg said he had never had a case in his career where an attorney refused to address settlement requests, referring to Huff's previous refusal to discuss any settlement of the class action.

This was the first hearing called by Potter, who was recently assigned the case after the previous judge retired amid accusations he was biased.

"This is unlike any case I have been involved in," Potter said after attorneys from both sides lobbed a volley of insults at each other.

About 30 people attended Tuesday's hearing at the Boone County Justice Center. None approached by a reporter would grant an interview, but Steinberg said most of those in attendance were sex-abuse victims.

Potter pressed Steinberg and co-council Stan Chesley for specifics of their case during the nearly three-hour hearing.

After previously saying there were 500 to 1,000 sex-abuse victims, Steinberg was forced to tell Potter he had the names and addresses of only 110 people. After the hearing, Steinberg said the 110 people were victims.

Steinberg said previous estimates of 500 to 1,000 were based, in part, on a statistical analysis of the number of sex-abuse victims experts say never report the crime.

Potter also wanted to know how many victims had dropped out of the class action by Saturday's deadline. Steinberg said 63 people had notified him that they didn't want to be part of the suit.

That includes 39 who have settled with the diocese since September for $8.3 million. Huff said an additional 10 to 15 people are in settlement talks.

"People are voting by their feet on what method they want to use in settling their claims," Huff said during the hearing.


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