In first public testimony, cardinal denies settlement with alleged abuse victims was final

Friday, August 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) _ An attorney for people claiming sexual abuse by a priest pressed Cardinal Bernard F. Law in court Friday to stick to an announced $30 million settlement, confronting him with a newspaper article in which he hailed the agreement.

Law, however, continued to deny that he believed the Archdiocese of Boston had reached a final deal with the 86 alleged victims of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan.

``I believed this to be a proposed settlement,'' he told attorney Mitchell Garabedian at the hearing, the first time he has testified publicly about the case.

Lawyers for alleged abuse victims were trying to persuade a judge that the archdiocese should be forced to honor the agreement. The deal was announced in March, but the archdiocese later backed out of it over financial concerns before 17 of the accusers had signed it.

Law had testified earlier this year in closed depositions in the continuing sexual-abuse scandal, and some of that testimony was made public later. But Friday's testimony was his first public statements in court.

Garabedian had Law read from an article in the archdiocese's newspaper, The Pilot, in which Law said, ``this settlement is an important step in reaching closure'' for Geoghan's alleged victims.

Garabedian asked Law why he had never referred to the settlement as ``proposed.'' He pointed to a March 15 editorial in the Pilot, of which Law serves as publisher, that said the case had been settled.

Law said he should have done so but maintained under repeated questioning that the context was clear and that the settlement would not be final until all 86 accusers and the archdiocese finance committee had signed it.

``I did not use that word as a qualifier, I wish obviously now that I had used it,'' he said. ``It would have expressed the intent of my words more effectively.''

The archdiocese is considering filing for bankruptcy if it is forced to pay such large amounts, The Boston Globe reported Friday, citing unnamed church advisers.

The advisers told the Globe that bankruptcy is being considered as a ``worst-case scenario.'' The archdiocese, facing fewer donations and a weakened economy, has already cut its budget by a third.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey said she had not read the article and had no comment.

Garabedian put himself on the stand for several hours Thursday. Under questioning by his law partner, William H. Gordon, he detailed months of discussions that led to the deal.

``The kind of conduct that went on here was a fraud on the court, ... or at the least, negligent representation,'' Gordon told Judge Constance M. Sweeney.

The attorneys also noted that discovery _ the evidence gathering before a case goes to trial _ was stopped after the court got word of a settlement agreement, an indication that a final deal was reached.

In sometimes prickly exchanges, Law's personal attorney J. Owen Todd questioned Garabedian on why he would assume such a complicated agreement was final when he had not received signed documents from all the accusers.

Next week, Law is scheduled to give depositions in separate abuse cases. Settlement talks recently broke down with lawyers for alleged victims in those 240 other pending cases.