LOS ANGELES (AP) – The nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese said Friday it will pay $60 million to settle 45 sex abuse lawsuits, the largest payout yet by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and among the biggest resulting from the molestation crisis that has plagued the church.

The cases were among more than 500 abuse claims pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that an agreement had not been signed but that the parties were close.

“It’s a day of healing and reconciliation as we move forward with these 45 cases,” Cardinal Roger Mahony told The Associated Press. “This is very special for these victims in their moment of healing.”

The settlement outlined by the archdiocese involves 22 priests and allegations from two periods when the archdiocese had limited or no insurance against abuse claims – prior to the mid-1950s and after 1987.

Mahony said $40 million of the payment would come from the archdiocese, while $20 million would be from religious orders plus a small amount of independent insurance coverage.

Negotiations had been in progress for at least a year but were held up because plaintiffs’ attorneys wanted the church to release the accused priests’ private personnel files.

The agreement calls for an independent judge to review those files and decide which documents can be released, Mahony said. That process is expected to take several months.

Early in the day, Ray Boucher, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, said at least two plaintiffs died while awaiting a resolution.

“I wasn’t certain we would ever get it done, but thankfully 45 very injured people will have a chance to begin to heal, particularly at this time of the year,” he said. “The big concern is the 700 or 800 victims who are out there who still have claims pending.”

Later in the day, however, Boucher said the archdiocese had “jumped the gun” on the announcement.

“We do not, as of today, have a signed settlement agreement,” Boucher said in a statement in which he confirmed the parties have been negotiating for more than a year on the 45 uninsured cases and were close to a settlement on a $60 million agreement.

“We are hopeful that an agreement will be completed by early next week,” he said.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg did not immediately return a call seeking further comment.

Mary Dispenza, one plaintiff who could receive money, said the agreement would help her heal. The former nun said she was abused by the now-defrocked Rev. George Neville Rucker beginning in 1947, when she was 7.

“I don’t know that I can ever reconcile with the church. That isn’t even my goal,” Dispenza, of Bellevue, Wash., said in a phone interview. “I just want to be at peace with myself, and I am.”

Don Steier, an attorney for Rucker and 10 other accused priests, declined to comment about specific allegations.

He said in a statement that his clients were “pleased that these cases are moving toward resolution. Everybody wants to put these matters behind them and move on with their lives.”

Steier said his clients were disappointed that the archdiocese chose to pay “those claims that appear to be valid, as well as those that are questionable.”

David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he was happy for the accusers who were part of the settlement but remained angry at Mahony and other church leaders.

“We recognize it for what it is, which is a purely business move designed to keep Mahony out of depositions and off the witness stand. That’s what every bishop fears the most, and that’s why they settled,” Clohessy said.

Sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests has cost the U.S. church at least $1.5 billion since 1950.

The settlement as outlined by the archdiocese Friday is the largest in California since 2004, when the Diocese of Orange agreed to spend $100 million to settle 90 abuse claims. It was also the fourth-largest in the nation since the clergy abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, according to an AP review of settlements.

Four dioceses – Tucson, Ariz.; Spokane, Wash.; Portland, Ore., and Davenport, Iowa – sought bankruptcy protection from a flood of lawsuits. Tucson has emerged from the process.


On the Net:

Archdiocese of Los Angeles: http://www.la-archdiocese.org/

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