Boston -- After 11 months of secret negotiations, the Boston Archdiocese of the Catholic Church was poised Tuesday to sign an agreement to pay $20 million to $30 million to 86 adults who say they were sexually abused by defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, according to parties close to the discussions.
A proposed settlement comes on the eve of a scheduled deposition of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the most senior Roman Catholic prelate in the United States. As a result of the agreement, Law will avoid a deposition in which he would have been asked questions about what church officials knew about pedophilia in the clerical ranks--and what they did or did not do about it.
Law and the archdiocese here have been at the center of a storm over clerical sexual abuse that has swept across America since Geoghan was convicted in January of molesting one boy 10 years ago.
From Trenton, N.J., to Tucson, Ariz., allegations have surfaced that dozens of parish priests abused hundreds of victims. Most priests have been removed from duty, and many face criminal charges.
In Boston alone, lawyers for the archdiocese have provided prosecutors with the names of more than 90 priests accused of sexual misconduct over at least 40 years.
Though the issue of pedophilia in the clergy is not new, the current crisis has reached new proportions. Based on information from the Geoghan case showing that church officials knew of the abuse and did not protect parishioners, devout Catholics across the country have expressed serious doubts about the spiritual backbone of their church, the priesthood.
"We are suffering collectively," said Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils in Chicago. "Our credibility and our profession are suffering."
A party involved in the Geoghan case negotiations, who asked not to be named, said Tuesday that awards to claimants will be determined by an arbitrator. Some awards will go to parents of victims, but most will go to men and women who say they were molested as children.
The archdiocese here has admitted paying about $15 million since the mid-1990s to an additional 100 of Geoghan's alleged victims.
Geoghan is serving a nine- to 10-year sentence following his January conviction. He faces additional criminal charges in two cases.
The proposed figure in Boston of $20 million to $30 million follows a pattern of high settlements in similar cases. In Dallas, $23.4 million was paid to nine altar boys. In New Mexico, the archdiocese paid about $50 million to settle about 45 suits.
Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney for the 84 victims covered by the new settlement, said Tuesday that since 1994 he has represented "118 individuals claiming to have been molested by Father James J. Geoghan, over 28 years in five parishes."
The biggest legal obstacle, according to Garabedian, is the church's position that the 1st Amendment protects the free exercise and expression of religion.
"For decades," Garabedian said, they have been saying, don't bother us in a legal sense because of the 1st Amendment, don't bother us in a moral sense because we are people of God and don't bother us in a spiritual sense because we will still celebrate Mass on Sunday."
Garabedian also said alleged victims are confronted with such questions about their credibility that many fail to come forth--or wait many years before bringing charges.
In addition, pursuing such claims becomes even more difficult because of the enormous authority of the Catholic Church.
"You start out looking like the bad guy in these cases. You're not even treated seriously at first," Garabedian said.
Wilson Rogers Jr., an attorney for the archdiocese here, did not return calls for comment.
A statement released Monday by the archdiocese said: "Our objective is to bring healing and justice to all of the victims. As the church, we have a moral obligation to do what is right and just, and that is our objective as we strive to reach fair resolutions to these cases."
An agreement had been expected Tuesday, but late in the day, both sides were still meeting in secret negotiations with a mediation service.
Among U.S. Catholics, said Silva, the Boston archdiocese carries special weight. That may help explain why a single case involving one priest unleashed such an avalanche.
"Boston was a pillar of the church in this country," said Silva. "Boston has the cardinal who stood . . . for right and good. We've held Boston in such esteem."
When "the plug was pulled in the Geoghan case"--confirming in legal documents that church officials were aware of that priest's pattern of abuse--"that opened the floodgate," Silva said.
Since the policies involving Geoghan came to light, Law has lamented the "tragically flawed" decision to move the priest from parish to parish. The cardinal also has publicly apologized.
Law has convened a task force of experts to help guide the archdiocese as it navigates the pedophilia scandal. He has urged parishioners to speak out about the problem.
But Garabedian, for one, remained skeptical.
"Asking the archdiocese of Boston to purge themselves of pedophiles is like asking a pedophile to cure himself. It's not going to happen. There's a subculture of darkness within the archdiocese."