A Los Angeles judge Monday accepted a $660 million settlement between L.A.'s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and more than 500 victims of clergy sexual abuse. It was the largest settlement yet in the scandal that's plagued the Catholic Church. Victims from around Southern California flocked to a Downtown L.A. courthouse to witness the announcement.
[Sound of victims talking in courthouse hallway]
Frank Stoltze: They crowded the third floor hallway outside Department 20 of the Hill Street courthouse: men and women in suits and dresses, t-shirts and jeans. All of them were victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests or lay teachers.
Here, after years of resistance, church leaders formally recognized those crimes as they settled lawsuits by 508 victims, some of whom suffered abuse as far back as the 1950s.
Outside the courthouse, 48-year-old Esther Miller and 36-year-old Mark Gallegos applauded the settlement that will award them more than $1 million each. But they said the money doesn't remove the trauma they've endured.
Esther Miller (crying): I just want to tell you that my journey is really long and hard. And the pain is still inside of me. It never goes away.
Mark Gallegos: I was a good kid. I wanted a good life for myself. I wanted a good life for my family. I come from a good family. And Father Sanchez took that away from me. I tried to commit suicide many times, many times over this.
Stoltze: Nearby, the eyes of a big, strong man grew teary and red. He said he's a firefighter named Jim who was victimized as a child. He wouldn't tell his last name, but he expressed relief that the church finally settled these cases. Another victim, Carlos Perez Carrillo, is 41 years old.
Carlos Perez Carrillo: Some of us feel a great deal of validation today. We've been told throughout the span of our lifetime that this hadn't happened to us, that we lied. We walked in darkness for many, many years.
Stoltze: Cardinal Roger Mahony attended the settlement hearing, but he did not speak. Mahony has led the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese for 22 years. He issued an apology to the victims over the weekend as news of the deal leaked out. As the court hearing ended, one woman yelled, "Go to hell, Mahony."
The settlement became final as the first of dozens of civil cases was about to go to trial. The cardinal would have been called to testify. Steve Sanchez is with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Steve Sanchez: Cardinal Mahony got off cheap today. For $660 million, he bought himself out of testifying in our case.
Stoltze: Mahony, many victims believe, helped cover up his priests' sexual abuse of children and teenagers. Ray Boucher is an attorney representing the victims. He praised the cardinal for traveling to the Vatican and urging Catholic Church leaders to accept a settlement.
But Boucher said it may also help uncover the role church leaders may have played in keeping the matter quiet for so long. Under the deal, the archdiocese has agreed to release confidential records involving individual priests.
Ray Boucher: Frankly, we are not naiive enough to believe that all the documents are here. I mean, we know that for decades many of the documents have been lost or destroyed or sent back to the Vatican. But we believe a significant piece of the picture, and particularly the complicity of this Catholic Church with these priests in allowing them to molest children – that that story will be made public through these documents.
Stoltze: Priests can still contest the release of their records. A court appointed "referee" will handle those disputes. The archdiocese, various orders of priests and brothers, and their insurance companies will shoulder the cost of the settlement. The archdiocese is expected to sell a number of its properties to pay the victims.
By settling now, though, it avoids punitive damages. Insurance companies don't pay those costs. One analyst had called potential punitive damages the "nuclear weapon" on the plaintiffs' table.
What gnaws at victims and their attorneys is the idea that abusive priests may remain on the Catholic Church's payroll. Mary Grant is with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Mary Grant: Not only do we believe that there are more abusive priests in the church, we believe there are at least 3,000 victims who were sexually abused in this archdiocese as children. Five hundred victims came forward. Most victims never do. Most victims never file lawsuits.
Stoltze: To that end, Grant and others said, they wonder whether the settlements of past cases will really resolve the problem of abuse within the church once and for all.