Church will pay to settle abuse claims

Payments settle 23 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of altar boys and others years ago.

The Miami Herald/September 22, 2004
By Jay Weaver

The Archdiocese of Miami has agreed to pay a total of $3.4 million to settle almost two dozen lawsuits brought by former altar boys and other youths who accused Catholic priests of sexually abusing them decades ago, their lawyer said.

The settlement agreements, ranging from $75,000 to $500,000, conclude all 23 negligence lawsuits brought by attorney Jeffrey Herman -- including nine finalized on Tuesday.

He represented more than half of the people who filed clergy sex-abuse suits against the Miami archdiocese after the nation's Catholic Church scandal broke in early 2002. His cases implicated 10 South Florida priests, who were put on administrative leave or resigned.

"The settlements are long overdue validation and vindication for the victims," Herman said in an interview, adding that the "archdiocese did the right thing."

An archdiocese spokeswoman said the settlements were not an admission of guilt.

"What it does do is bring to conclusion these events so that the church can continue to move on in a financially responsible way and the alleged victims can continue with their healing," said the spokeswoman, Mary Ross Agosta.

She said that Archbishop John C. Favalora had not decided on the fate of those priests on administrative leave.

Among the priests identified in newly settled cases was Ernesto Garcia-Rubio, former pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence in Sweetwater, accused of raping a young parishioner. Garcia-Rubio was defrocked in the late 1990s -- a decade after he was accused of sexually abusing four Central American refugee youths.

The new settlements also involved:

"The Rev. Alvaro Guichard of St. Francis de Sales in Miami Beach, accused of abusing two altar boys and two teenage Cuban exiles.

"The Rev. Ricardo Castellanos of San Isidro in Pompano Beach, accused of sexually assaulting two altar boys.

"The Rev. Joseph Cinesi of St. Maurice near Hollywood, accused of sexually assaulting an altar boy.

"The Rev. Joseph Huck of Our Lady Queen of Heaven in North Lauderdale, accused of repeatedly molesting an altar boy.

Accusations Denied

Since April 2002, Castellanos, Guichard and Cinesi, all on administrative leave, have strongly denied the accusations. Huck, who retired in May 2002, could not be reached for comment.

Reached late Tuesday, Guichard said he did not know about the settlements.

"I am suffering from character assassinations," said Guichard, adding that he, like other priests, was dropped as a defendant in the suits. "These are all lies to get money from the archdiocese."

Castellanos, through a representative, said: "The settlement was done without consulting me, and I was totally opposed to it."

The family of Miguel Chinchilla, a former altar boy at Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables, filed the first suit against the archdiocese in April 2002. It alleged that church leaders knew that Castellanos and Guichard sexually abused a young Miguel in the mid-1970s. Miguel died of AIDS in 1993.

"My family believes that the archdiocese knew for a long time the facts of this case," Miguel's brother Ignacio Chinchilla said Tuesday. "It was only through litigation that they had no choice but to take responsibility for the misconduct of these two priests."

Jose A. Currais Jr., a former altar boy who accused Castellanos and Guichard of sexually abusing him in the early 1970s, said he was pleased with the outcome.

"I'm glad that the church has recognized that both these priests were responsible for what they did," Currais said. "I personally believe that the church was covering up for them all these years."

Attorney Herman's total settlements are significant because they account for more than half of the approximately 40 sex-abuse suits filed against the Miami archdiocese. A handful of others have been settled, but most are pending. Herman's cases would likely be used as a benchmark for other settlements.

Earlier Agreements

Before the controversy erupted two years ago, the archdiocese paid sex-abuse victims quietly with confidentiality agreements to avoid adverse publicity.

"To me, the settlement is an acknowledgment and acceptance of responsibility by the Church," Herman said. "At long last, the archdiocese is working to help the victims."

In the agreements, the archdiocese admitted no wrongdoing -- a standard condition in such settlements.

Last December, the Miami archdiocese reported in a Catholic newspaper that its insurers had paid $2.1 million to settle 64 clergy sexual misconduct claims since 1966, when the church started its liability insurance coverage.

Also, in June, the Miami-Dade County state attorney's office concluded investigations of about 35 clergy sex-abuse allegations with a finding that the statute of limitations had expired on most of them. Consequently, although 20 priests and religious brothers had been accused, only one priest and one church volunteer were charged.

The Rev. Trevor Smith, who served in the archdiocese for 35 years, was charged with two counts of fondling a 12-year-old boy who was visiting his grandmother at the Villa Maria Nursing home three years ago. The 67-year-old priest, now retired in Pompano Beach, has consistently proclaimed his innocence. His trial is pending.

The boy, represented by Herman in a lawsuit, received a $500,000 settlement from the archdiocese last year.

Overall, Herman reached settlements in cases involving Smith and nine other priests: Castellanos, Guichard, Cinesi, Huck, Garcia-Rubio, the late Jose Nickse of St. Brendan's in Westchester, Neil Doherty of St. Vincent's in Margate, Neil Fleming of Boystown in Miami-Dade, and Joaquin Guerrero, who worked in the archdiocese's Pedro Pan program.

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