- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

Lawyers defending the nation's Roman Catholic Church in the growing sex-abuse scandal must fight to protect church assets while still respecting victims, two law school deans say.
"They have to be 'stewards' for 60 million Catholics but also take moral responsibility for the crisis," said Mark A. Sargent, dean of Villanova University School of Law.
"Most cases are being settled in one way or another because there is truth to the complaint," he said. "The bigger issue will become large damage awards. You are seeing lawyers advertising for clients now."
Church lawyers must have the courtroom right to test whether a complaint is more than an "advocacy piece," though Mr. Sargent predicts that "the number of fraudulent claims will be small."
As record numbers of lawsuits mount against either a diocese or a priest the Associated Press cited at least 300 suits in recent weeks the issue of how the church defends itself in emotional circumstances will also be important.
At the bishops' meeting in Dallas on Thursday, a victim of sexual abuse recounted his humiliation at being cross-examined in a courtroom.
In a recent public trial, a Pennsylvania judge accused church lawyers of employing "scorched-earth tactics" in defending the church against a plaintiff. News reports, meanwhile, have emphasized the bad taste of church lawyers who rely on "limited liability" statutes to escape escalating fines or damages.
Plaintiffs' lawyers typically take a third of the damage award.
One watchdog group has reported that abuse complaints have been filed against 1,500 U.S. priests since the 1980s. Estimates of total damages paid out since then range from $300 million to $1 billion.
"Most of these cases are going to be about negligent supervision of personnel and other torts," said Douglas Kmiec, dean of Columbus Law School at Catholic University of America. "It is going to take years to resolve all of this."
Mr. Kmiec said many lawyers representing plaintiffs will be aggressive in trying to win against any one of the nation's 178 dioceses, which are the basic financial incorporations of the U.S. church. But he does not think church lawyers should play the hardball that is often allowed in court proceedings. "The church has to hold itself to a higher standard," he said.
Cross-examination must focus on facts but will probably have to avoid the legal technique of discrediting the testimony of a plaintiff, he said.
Mr. Kmiec has proposed to some of the bishops that the U.S. church form a new and separate charitable body that Catholics may contribute to for philanthropic work and schools. At this time, he said, Catholics may fear that their parish donations will be sucked up in multimillion-dollar damage awards.
"The church is going to be vulnerable for some time to come on its assets," Mr. Kmiec said.
Industries such as U.S. asbestos manufacturing have been dissolved as a result of class-action lawsuits, but nobody knows how much the U.S. Catholic Church is worth.
While Congress has put a cap on awards offered by judges and juries in complaints against the tobacco industry, lawyers say the separation of church and state bars lawmakers from giving any religious body such protection.


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