Thursday, August 5, 2004

Church trial date delayed

Priest abuse lawsuit pushed to Jan. 10

By Jim Hannah
Enquirer staff writer

BURLINGTON - The trial in the nation's first certified class-action lawsuit alleging priest sexual abuse has been pushed back to next year.

Judge John Potter of Louisville told the attorneys for the Covington Diocese and the plaintiffs Wednesday that he wants them to concentrate on mediation instead of trial preparations. The trial date was moved from Oct. 25 to Jan. 10 in Boone Circuit Court.

Plaintiffs' attorney Bob Steinberg told the judge he was concerned that a later trial might discourage the diocese from reaching a quick settlement.

"I feel the Oct. 25 trial date has played a significant role in moving the settlement talks forward," said Steinberg, of the Cincinnati firm Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley.

Diocesan attorney Carrie Huff of Chicago disagreed.

"The October trial date didn't affect what we have or have not done," she said.

Both sides began mediation in June with Kenneth Feinberg, who handled the government fund for families of Sept. 11 victims.

The mediator has been asked to help reach a settlement in a lawsuit certified as a class action last October on behalf of sexual abuse victims from the past 50 years in the diocese, which included the eastern half of Kentucky until the Lexington diocese was formed in 1988. The Covington diocese currently spans 14 counties and includes about 89,000 parishioners.

Neither Steinberg nor Huff would discuss the settlement talks outside of the court.

But during the hearing, Huff said, "Honestly, we disagree on almost every issue except that we want to resolve the claims. Right now we're trying to focus on the common ground."

The judge applauded the attorneys' attempts to settle the case, but said he would proceed as if the lawsuit were going to trial. He granted a joint motion to postpone a pretrial hearing.

"The diocese is currently working on a settlement proposal to convey to the mediator," the motion said. "Given the number and complexity of the issues that need to be addressed in such a proposal, we anticipate that the mediation may continue through the end of August."

The motion went on to say everyone remained hopeful that all of the claims could be resolved through an out-of-court settlement.

Potter said he would consider a motion asking that priests named in the lawsuit be allowed to refuse to give depositions. The motion said they were invoking their right against self-incrimination.

A confidential report on the status of the mediation is due Sept. 1.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 20.

E-mail jhannah@enquirer .com

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