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Jury pool tainted by news on priests' sex abuse, church lawyers say

March 16, 2013 |  9:54 am

Michael Duran

Lawyers for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are seeking to postpone upcoming sexual abuse trials or relocate them to a courthouse 200 miles away because they don't believe they can get a fair trial in Southern California.

The church's request to a judge for a delay or change of venue in pending cases this week came just hours after the announcement that the archdiocese would pay two brothers an unprecedented $4 million each to avoid a molestation trial set for April. The payouts to the men, part of a $10-million deal ending four lawsuits, dwarfed settlements the church paid victims in recent years and underscored the archdiocese's reluctance to face juries in its own backyard.

"We think that the environment in Los Angeles today is currently hostile," archdiocese lawyer J. Michael Hennigan said.

The January release of personnel files showing that church hierarchy in the 1980s and 1990s shielded abuser priests from police refocused public attention on the clergy sex scandal. In court papers, archdiocese attorneys blamed media coverage, which they described as "unrelenting obloquy, condemnation and contempt," for poisoning the potential jury pool.

The church proposed to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias on Tuesday that four lawsuits concerning a Mexican priest accused of abusing more than two dozen boys in L.A. be moved to San Luis Obispo County. In the alternative, the church asked for a trial delay of at least six months to allow what Hennigan called a "cooling-off period."

The archdiocese bolstered its request to the judge with a report from a jury consultant describing "an intense level of vitriol" in the region toward the former archbishop, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, and the church.

Donald Vinson, who worked on the O.J. Simpson and Oklahoma City bombing trials, did not survey potential jurors but said that based on a review of media reports and Google search trends, "the defendants in this matter will not be able to obtain a fair and impartial jury trial in any venue within the Los Angeles media market."

He said the coverage had turned "passive consumers" of news to "active investigators of the issues" and cited caustic, offensive online comments about Mahony on KTLA's website.

Changes of venue in civil trials are highly unusual and Richard Gabriel, a jury consultant who has worked for many parties seeking to relocate cases, said the archdiocese's request was a long shot. Child molestation cases "engender very high emotions and very strong feelings," he said, but judges are "very stringent" in evaluating whether moving trials is really necessary.

"When you have a metropolitan area of 8 to 10 million people, it's pretty hard to say that out of that many, you can't find a fair and impartial jury," Gabriel said.

The archdiocese has always settled abuse cases before trial, but the possibility of making plaintiffs prove their claims in the unpredictable setting of a trial has been a negotiating point for church lawyers as they try to drive down the amount of settlements.

The change of venue request this week was an acknowledgment that the archdiocese believed it no longer had the option of going to trial in L.A. Hennigan, who as the archdiocese's lead litigator has overseen two massive settlements totaling $720 million and dozens of smaller payouts, said he had no confidence in local juries given the "media frenzy about the events happening 20-plus years ago."

"It is not likely that there is anyone who has not been affected" by the publicity, Hennigan said.

The $4-million settlements to two brothers seemed to reflect a changing landscape. The priest accused by the men, Michael Baker, is suspected of molesting at least 23 minors and was convicted criminally of abusing two boys. He admitted molesting youths in a private conversation with Mahony in 1986. Mahony sent him for treatment but returned him to ministry and Baker molested again.

When the brothers initially filed their case in 2011, the church expressed strong doubts about the validity of their claim. A third, older brother received a $2.2-million settlement from the church the previous year for molestation by Baker and archdiocese attorneys suggested the subsequent lawsuit was a money grab.

"Each has previously denied that any abuse occurred at all....  Neither came forward until after their brother received a multimillion-dollar settlement," church lawyers wrote.

Baker admitted molesting the older brother of the men suing him but told sheriff's detectives he never touched them and volunteered to take a polygraph. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

Attorneys for the men said the church's tone changed after Baker's personnel file was made public in January. The documents revealed that one of Mahony's top aides, Thomas J. Curry, suggested strategies for keeping police from investigating Baker, including preventing him from seeing certain therapists because they were required to report him to police.

"We did not believe they were serious about settling the cases until the documents came out," said John Manly, an attorney for the men.

With the church ready to pay, the question became how much. The church paid an average of $1.3 million per individual in its 2007 settlement with hundreds of victims. In recent years, with suits facing tougher standards for statute of limitations, the church paid far smaller sums. In 2011, for example, it settled seven claims for an average of $83,000 per person.-

The church's insurers, which paid a chunk of the $660-million settlement six years ago, are long out of the picture — all payments now come directly from church coffers. The archdiocese said in a recent financial report that it was considering a $200-million fundraising campaign to repay loans it took out in past years to cover sex abuse payouts.

The archdiocese ultimately agreed to pay $9.9 million to the brothers and two other men who said Baker abused them. A judge apportioned the settlement. Two of the men, who alleged that they were molested before Mahony learned of Baker's history of abuse, got just under $1 million each, and the brothers, who said they were abused in the 1990s after the cardinal was warned, split $8 million.

Hennigan said the size of the settlement had to do with a changed "public attitude" toward the church as well as the notoriety and severity of Baker's case.

"Michael Baker is our poster boy for misconduct," he said.

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-- Harriet Ryan and Victoria Kim

Photo: Michael Duran, holding two photographs of himself as a child, will receive nearly $1 million as part of a $10-million settlement of four men's lawsuits that alleged abuse by former priest Michael Baker. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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