LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Seventeen people who brought sexual abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles have won a $13 million legal settlement, with most of the allegations involving a priest who left the country as an investigation got under way, attorneys said on Wednesday.
The settlement, reached last week, averted a trial that would have centered largely on abuse allegations against Father Nicolas Aguilar-Rivera, who in 1988 left his Los Angeles parish for Mexico as a probe was being mounted against him. His whereabouts are unknown.
Eleven men who said they were abused by Aguilar-Rivera as boys in the late 1980s were among the 17 people sharing the settlement. They will each receive an average of $1 million, with lesser amounts going to another six plaintiffs who accused other people working in the archdiocese of abuse, said attorneys who brought the lawsuits.
“The money being paid by the archdiocese in some ways is a symbol of accountability and recognition, but in a very real way, it allows folks to have another chance,” said Anthony De Marco, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.
The victims of sexual abuse will be able to use the payouts to obtain therapy and rebuild their lives by for instance buying a home or securing their retirement, he added.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese, which serves about 4.6 million Catholics, has reached legal settlements totaling over $740 million with people who have sued in the last decade over sexual abuse, said Michael Hennigan, an attorney for the archdiocese.
The largest share was a $660 million civil settlement in 2007 with more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, marking the biggest such agreement of its kind in the nation.
The latest settlement appears to represent the last pending lawsuit against the archdiocese brought in connection with a 2002 California law temporarily lifting the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to sue, Hennigan said.
“It has been the desire of the archdiocese to settle the civil cases of abuse and to provide support to the victims through the healing process,” the archdiocese said in a statement regarding the latest settlement.
“We continue to pray earnestly for all victims and their families so that they may find emotional and spiritual healing,” the statement said.
Abuse allegations against the archdiocese have made Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop for the Los Angeles region who retired from the post in 2011, a controversial figure. Attorneys for victims of sexual abuse have accused Mahony of mishandling complaints of abuse and shielding accused members of the clergy.
Documents presented in the lawsuit brought against the archdiocese in the Aguilar-Rivera case show that in January 1988 police asked for lists of altar boys at the last parish where Aguilar-Rivera worked but the church refused.
Hennigan said that at the time, Mahony did not know Aguilar-Rivera was suspected of abusing altar boys.
“In those days, before we fully understood the depth and height of some of these problems, I think Cardinal (Mahony) did not see why these young people would be subjected to police interviews when there was as yet no suggestion there had been a problem there,” Hennigan said.
“Now the policy is whatever police want, we give them,” he added.
When the report of alleged abuse against Aguilar-Rivera was made in January 1988, he was immediately removed from the ministry, according to the archdiocese.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman