Franciscans Settle Sexual Abuse Cases

 
Melissa Evans
Santa Barbara News Press
August 9, 2006
 
More than four years after the first civil lawsuits were filed against the Franciscan Order and other Catholic groups alleging sexual abuse by clergymen, cases involving 25 victims were officially settled out of court this week.
The Franciscans ended a chapter in their decades-long saga of alleged abuse by agreeing to pay $28.45 million to the victims, who in turn have agreed to drop their cases.
 
"It was like running a marathon, and you hardly have enough energy to make it to the finish line," said Deborah Boedekker-Follett, a Santa Maria resident who filed her lawsuit in 2002 when the California Legislature lifted the statute of limitations on old claims of abuse, which allowed this group to sue. "It's still very surreal right now, but even though nothing is going to get back what was taken, it's nice to know there's some closure."
 
The Franciscan Order, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, insurance companies and individuals named as defendants will share the cost of payments to victims. The amount of money each victim will receive was not made public in the settlement, but those close to the negotiations said it was based on the severity and length of abuse.
 
Raymond Boucher, one of the attorneys handling the cases, has said the average payment would be about $1.27 million.
 
Most of the lawsuits involved alleged abuse that occurred between 1960 and 1991 at St. Anthony's seminary, a now-shuttered high school near the Santa Barbara Mission that was run by the Franciscans. The Oakland-based order recently sold the former high school for roughly $22 million, which will be used for the settlement payments.
 
"The friars hope that these plaintiffs who suffered tremendous emotional damage in their lives will be able to move forward and put this behind them," the Rev. Mel Jurisich, head of the order, said Tuesday. "That's our hope. This has been an incredible journey."
 
The cases filed in 2002 were the second round of abuse allegations levied against the order. In 1992, a group of angry parents and adult victims pressured Franciscan leaders to investigate several claims of abuse, primarily by two priests: Robert Van Handel, who eventually served jail time for sex abuse; and the Rev. Mario Cimmarrusti, former head of discipline at St. Anthony's, who was never prosecuted criminally.
 
Mr. Van Handel, the former choir director at St. Anthony's, was defrocked and now lives as a registered sex offender in Santa Cruz County. The Rev. Cimmarrusti resides at a retreat house in Danville under supervision.
 
The men were two of 11 priests who the order acknowledged had abused 34 boys in a 1993 report assembled by an independent community group. Counseling and some monetary awards were given to the victims at the time, but most signed legal documents that prevented them from suing again during the 2002 window.
 
Ron Bottorff was one of the first to come forward in the early 1990s. He said he was pleased at news of the settlement, particularly because the Franciscans will have to disclose hundreds of documents, including depositions, priest personnel files and other information that could shed light on how much leaders knew.
 
"I'm just happy I was able to help bring this out into the open," said Mr. Bottorff, a Twentynine Palms resident.
 
With some exceptions, the Franciscans have 45 days to produce the paperwork related to priest files and depositions, according to the settlement agreement.
 
The local cases moved more swiftly than those filed in Los Angeles, partly because of a pending civil trial that was set to start last spring. One of the victims, identified only as John Doe, 39, filed his case in Oakland where the order is based -- and where litigation has moved faster.
 
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which includes Santa Barbara County, has yet to resolve hundreds of other cases involving sex abuse, some involving local parishes.
 
Ms. Boedekker-Follett and one other victim filed a lawsuit against the Rev. Sam Cabot, a close family friend who she says molested her for six years. The Franciscan now lives at a retreat house in Malibu.
 
She said fighting this legal battle restored some of her self-worth, although the money will not restore her childhood.
 
"I don't know that this has changed anything in the church, but it has made it harder for them to cover it up," she said.
 
The Franciscans have offered counseling to most of the victims, and have since put in place a system involving outside counselors for victims to come forward.
 
"I know that no amount of money will give (victims) reconciliation until they forgive the church," said the Rev. Jurisich, who has met with victims to apologize. "We hope that this is a time of closure and new beginnings."
 
Copyright © 2006 Santa Barbara News-Press / Ampersand Publishing, LLC.