Settlement near in priest abuse civil cases

By Melissa Evans

Santa Barbara News Press

March 13, 2006 

Eight days before the first civil lawsuit charging sexual abuse against the Franciscan friars was to go to trial, lawyers for the alleged victims said Sunday that they reached a tentative settlement with the religious order.  

If the settlement agreement stands, it would end four years of bitter legal wrangling between the 22 alleged victims and the Franciscans.  

Details of the agreement, including monetary awards, would not be disclosed until the settlement is finalized, the lawyers said. However, as part of the agreement, depositions of about a dozen friars who served at St. Anthony's Seminary and the Santa Barbara Mission would for the first time be made public, the lawyers said.  

"If (the Franciscans) really want to bring about change, they're going to have to suffer through this," said Timothy Hale, a lawyer with Nye, Peabody & Sterling, a Santa Barbara law firm representing 13 of the alleged victims. "If they had done their moral duty back when (the abuse) happened, these (abusers) would now be living as registered sex offenders."  

Most of the settled cases involve the Rev. Mario Cimmarrusti, who is accused of sexually abusing boys in the late 1960s while serving as head of discipline at St. Anthony's. The priest, 76, lives at a retreat house in Danville and has denied any wrongdoing.  

Other priests named in the lawsuits include the Rev. Robert Van Handel, who served jail time for sexual molestation and now lives in Santa Cruz; the Rev. Sam Cabot, who lives at a retreat house in Malibu and has never been charged with a crime; and the Rev. Gus Krumm, who was removed from ministry in 2002 after admitting to "indiscretions" in the 1970s and 1980s.  

"I'll never get my innocence back, ever," said Deborah Boeddeker-Follett, 31, a Santa Maria resident who sued because of alleged abuse by the Rev. Cabot. "And (the Franciscans) are still taking care of these guys. They will never suffer any repercussions. . . . For me, all I want is to get their names out into the public to protect children."

Like other victims -- along with attorneys and members of the Franciscan Order -- Ms. Boeddeker-Follett said she is relieved the legal ordeal is over. 

Mr. Hale said he is confident the Franciscans agreed to settle only because of an impending civil trial scheduled to begin March 20. The victim in that case, named only as John Doe 39, filed his case against the Franciscan Order in Oakland, where the religious order is based.  

The other lawsuits were filed in Southern California jointly against the order and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees religious orders and Roman Catholic churches in Santa Barbara County. The tentative settlement, reached late last week, will essentially dismiss the 22 cases against the Franciscans and the archdiocese, Mr. Hale said.  

The Rev. Mel Jurisich, head of the Franciscan order, could not be reached for comment Sunday. The Rev. Richard Juzix, pastor of the Santa Barbara Mission, hadn't heard about the settlement but said he would be happy to see closure in the civil cases.

"This would allow us to do the best we can to make reparation to all of the victims, and at the same time continue with the ministry of the Franciscans," he said. "I hope that the victims and their families feel good about this settlement. I look forward to a future with hope."  

The Franciscans conceded that abuse occurred at St. Anthony's after an internal report published in 1993 found 11 priests had abused 34 boys from 1964 to 1987, when the seminary closed for financial reasons. After the California state Legislature lifted the statute of limitations on old abuse cases in 2003, the alleged victims sued in civil court.  

Robert Millick, a Windsor resident who says he received a settlement in the mid-1990s after being identified as one of the 34 victims at St. Anthony's, filed a civil suit after learning more details of the Franciscans' pattern of covering up abuse, he said.

"I'm happy to see this concluded, but I was prepared to go to trial," said Mr. Millick, whose case was part of the Southern California litigation. "I was prepared to go as long as it takes to hold (the Franciscans) accountable."  

Mr. Hale and others involved in the negotiations said any out-of-court settlement depended on the Franciscans' agreement to publish depositions, statements under oath taken for the trial. One of the Franciscans who gave a statement is the Rev. Xavier Harris, who served as rector of St. Anthony's in the late 1960s when the Rev. Cimmarrusti was there.  

It is unclear when the depositions will be made public, or when the agreement will be finalized. The Oakland trial, originally slated to begin March 20, has been postponed until May 8. The trial would only take place if the settlement falls through, Mr. Hale said.  

The tentative agreement is both good news and bad news, said Ray Higgins, the father of an alleged abuse victim. Mr. Higgins has served as a consultant to the plaintiffs' attorneys.  

"I almost would have rather seen this go to court so that all of the terrible crimes could have become public record," said Mr. Higgins, one of five people appointed by the Franciscans in 1993 to investigate claims of abuse. "I'm glad that they will be at least making the depositions public. I'm sure that will be very enlightening for the public to hear about the severity of these crimes."  

Resolving the matter out of court, however, will ease the pain for both victims and the Franciscan order, which already made monetary payments to victims of alleged sexual abuse, said Paul Fericano, an alleged victim of the Rev. Cimmarrusti who was also identified in the 1993 report as one of 34 boys who had been abused.  

"I don't want to see survivors dragged through the press again," he said. "The Franciscans really want to do the right thing."  

Mr. Fericano was not involved in the current lawsuit. He has made amends with the religious order and encourages other victims to do the same.  

Others aren't so forgiving. Mary Grant, spokeswoman for the Southwest region of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, said the truth, not money, is the only thing that would heal the pain of sexual abuse.  

"It's only because of the persistence and courage of attorneys and some of these victims that the church is being forced to confront this," she said. "(The church) has to face this."

Ms. Boeddeker-Follett agreed, saying she wants disclosure and a sincere apology.  

A few weeks ago, the Rev. Jurisich contacted victims to say he was sorry, she said -- but she wasn't convinced.  

"I felt like he wanted me to feel sorry for him," she said. "Am I supposed to feel sorry for you? I'll never get my innocence back. No amount of money will bring that back."