The $25.7 million settlement that the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., has agreed to pay victims of clerical sex abuse ends one high-profile legal fight for the Roman Catholic Church.
But the 243 persons covered by that agreement represent just a fraction of outstanding claims nationwide, guaranteeing more financial pain ahead for U.S. dioceses.
In the past year, about 1,000 people have come forward with new accusations against dioceses across the country, according to Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
More than 500 abuse complaints are pending in the Archdiocese of Boston alone. California lawmakers have abolished the time limit on abuse lawsuits filed this year only; hundreds of new claims are expected.
“It’s going to be substantial period of time — years — before this is over,” said Steve Rubino, a longtime victims’ attorney from New Jersey.
Even dioceses like Louisville that have agreed to multimillion-dollar payouts may see more lawsuits.
The Kentucky settlement announced Tuesday was shared among people who all accused priests and employees of child sex abuse.
But the cases were not filed as a class-action suit, which would have set a time limit for plaintiffs to claim their share of a settlement. Abuse lawsuits are filed separately — and nothing bars more people from filing suits in Louisville even after agreements have been reached with others.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement Tuesday that “we are certain there are still dozens of wounded victims in the Louisville diocese who remain trapped in silence,” and encouraged them to come forward.
David Clohessy, the Survivors Network national director, said it is common for victims in the same diocese to await the outcome of someone else’s lawsuit before filing one themselves.
“The last thing they want is to be hurt again. They say, ‘I’m going to sit tight and see how this works out,’” Mr. Clohessy said. “People think these lawsuits come in a deluge. It’s just the reverse.”
Some state legislatures are taking action that increases the chances for more litigation. Bills that would extend time limits for civil lawsuits are awaiting governors’ signatures in Illinois and Missouri.
In Illinois, Mr. Rubino predicted that hundreds of new complaints will be filed in that state alone if the proposed changes become law.
All these uncertainties put dioceses in a precarious financial position. It is nearly impossible for them to accurately estimate their potential costs from the lawsuits. And, as in Louisville, many face claims that are so old their insurance does not cover the payouts.
Louisville’s is the latest of at least four multimillion-dollar lawsuits settled by U.S. dioceses since last September, with the church paying out more than $55 million. Estimates of the amount dioceses have paid to abuse victims in the past two decades go as high as $1 billion.
“If the Archdiocese of Boston breaks the bank to pay for whatever cases are pending now, tomorrow another lawyer could file another 50 cases,” said Patrick Schiltz, dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, who has defended dioceses in scores of abuse cases.
“And when you settle any case, every plaintiffs’ lawyer in the country treats that as a floor at which they can negotiate the next one,” Mr. Schiltz said. “You don’t know how much you can afford.”