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Attorneys challenging bankruptcy court

  Legal Business  -   POSTED: 2007/08/03 17:03

Anticipating that the bankruptcy court may soon send child sexual-abuse lawsuits to trial, lawyers for the San Diego diocese are seeking to have a different federal judge determine how much the cases are worth. Attorneys for Bishop Robert Brom say a reason for the move is that they plan to make a legal challenge on constitutional grounds that is unsuited to be heard in bankruptcy court.

But lawyers for nearly 160 men and women who have sued the Roman Catholic diocese for covering up sexual abuse by clergy members and others say the bishop is merely trying to duck the public specter of jury trials.

Meanwhile, weeks of closed mediation talks with a federal magistrate have failed to produce a settlement of the abuse claims, nearly all of which were filed in 2003.

A key question now is: What is likely to spur a settlement?

Veteran legal observers say to look no further than last month's record, $660 million agreement between Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and attorneys for 508 plaintiffs to see the effect a looming trial has on settlement talks. The Los Angeles diocese settled on the eve of the first trial there.

The matter of how to value the abuse lawsuits is set to be debated before federal bankruptcy Judge Louise DeCarl Adler on Aug. 23. She will consider a motion by the victims' attorneys to send dozens of the lawsuits back to state court for trial dates.

The diocese wants to take the matter out of Adler's hands, however. Brom's attorneys, in a motion filed two weeks ago, are asking a U.S. District judge to estimate the value of the abuse lawsuits in a way that does not involve testimony in open court.

In a response filed yesterday, attorneys representing the sexual-abuse victims called that idea "forum shopping."

They said the diocese's action is about "fleeing a state court system that has resulted in average settlements well above the amount it wants to pay."

The diocese has offered $95 million, or about $600,000 per victim on average, to settle the abuse lawsuits and emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Diocese attorneys say that offer reflects Brom's goal of trying to fairly compensate the victims while protecting the church's mission of educating Catholic children and ministering to the spiritual needs of parishioners.

In court documents filed yesterday, plaintiffs' attorneys note that the Orange County diocese settled more than 90 abuse suits in 2004 for an average of $1.15 million apiece, and that the Los Angeles cases settled for $1.3 million on average.

In March, on the first day of the bankruptcy case, Adler made it clear that she would "not be deciding the merits of the abuse cases."

She said the value of the abuse claims will be resolved in one of three ways: They will be settled before a mediator, arbitrator or settlement judge; they may be estimated by the U.S. District Court; or they will be tried.

Closed mediation talks continue before Magistrate Judge Leo Papas. An intense week of mediation is scheduled beginning Aug. 13, in advance of Adler's ruling on whether to release the cases for state court trials.

The diocese's request to have the case-valuation issue decided by a U.S. District judge – whose power supersedes that of bankruptcy court judges – is expected to be considered soon. No hearing date has been set. One reason diocese attorneys give for wanting the matter placed before a U.S. District judge is that they hope to again argue that the 2002 California law allowing lawsuits regarding decades-old abuse incidents is unconstitutional.

The diocese has raised that issue twice before in state court and once in federal court. It lost each time.

A man with long experience mediating and deciding such complex and high-stakes issues is retired U.S. District Judge Lawrence Irving.

"I've handled a lot of mass tort (personal-injury) cases, and one thing is typical of all of them: They never go to trial," Irving said.

"What will force the diocese to settle these cases is to set them for trial immediately. And remember, both the bankruptcy judge and a U.S. District judge have the power to remand these cases for trial."

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