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More Sex Abuse Suits Filed against Valley Priests

By Marc Benjamin
Fresno Bee (California)
December 17, 2003

For much of his life, Howard Santillan has been unable to come to grips with what happened to him as a child.

"It takes over every part of my life," he said Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court, where his lawsuit was one of six filed by five men and two women who claim they were victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

As a child, Santillan, 49, grew up in Wasco and attended church in St. John's Parish. He claims he was abused by Monsignor Anthony G. Herdegen, 86, who was the parish priest for 16 years.

Herdegen now lives in Wisconsin. Efforts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Herdegen was ordained as a priest in 1946 and assigned to churches in Bakersfield, Fresno, Watsonville, Kerman, Santa Margarita, Hilmar, Corcoran, Porterville, Taft and Lake Isabella before retiring in 1995.

Santillan said Herdegen sexually assaulted him between the ages of 5 and 19.

Santillan's older brother, George, 55, also said he was sexually abused by Herdegen after George Santillan tried to protect his younger brother.

From the age of 10 to 15, George Santillan says he was abused by Herdegen.

"Hopefully, by coming forward, this will help someone else not having to go through the misery I have," Howard Santillan said.

Howard Santillan's case was investigated by the Kern County Sheriff's Department 18 years ago, he said, but because of the statute of limitations, the issue was not pursued.

The lawsuits join a host of similar cases filed this month in California as attorneys and alleged molestation victims rush to beat an end-of-year filing deadline for cases involving decades-old abuse.

The cases filed Tuesday come on the heels of a suit filed Monday in Fresno County Superior Court by John Gregory Pech, 51, who claimed he was molested by Monsignor Joseph Pacheco during the 1960s when the Catholic priest taught at parishes in Tulare and Merced. Pacheco died in 1992.

Lawyer David Drivon of Stockton, who filed the six lawsuits Tuesday, said Fresno was chosen because it's home of the Catholic diocese. The defendants in the suits are individual priests, individual parishes and the diocese.

The victims claimed psychological problems, and in some cases, bouts with drugs and alcohol that stemmed from the abuse by priests.

"They don't know how much this was the cause of this problem or that problem, but they know it was some part," Drivon said.

The oldest sexual abuse case involved Harold Marsh, 80, and dates back to the mid-1930s and three now-deceased priests: two at St. Francis Parish in Bakersfield, and one in an Oakland seminary.

One man, identified as John Doe in his court filing, claimed to be sexually abused in the St. Jude Parish in Earlimart for two years in the mid-1970s. The priest he accused is the Rev. Benjamin Gabriel, who also served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Clovis from 1971 to 1973 but was not with a parish after 1980 and pronounced retired in 1986, according to Catholic Church records.

The case of Juan Rocha, 28, which was filed last year in Bakersfield, was added to the group of cases because it met the guidelines of the filing law that expires Dec. 31 and allowed lawyers to handle all cases in Fresno, Drivon said.

Rocha claims he was sexually abused between the ages of 10 and 14 by the Rev. Eric Swearingen at Our Lady Of Guadalupe Church in Bakersfield.

Swearingen also has served at churches in Lemoore and most recently at Holy Spirit in Fresno. He remains at Holy Spirit in Fresno, said William Lucido, a Fresno diocesean spokesman.

"The bishop investigated the case and found no reason to take him out of the ministry, and both district attorneys in Kern and Fresno counties investigated and did not file charges," Lucido said.

The two women who filed lawsuits are both in their 50s.

Pamela Brooks, 56, of Roseville, said she was pregnant and 17 years old in the early 1960s when her parents sent her to live with a family who attended St. Agnes Mission in Fresno.

She claims the Rev. Jack Bradley, a priest at the mission, began sexually abusing her while she was pregnant. She said the abuse continued for five months.

A woman listed as Jane Roe also claimed abuse for five years in the early 1960s by the Rev. James Collins while attending St. Mary's Church in Buttonwillow.

Collins also served as a priest in Avenal and Lemoore churches.

Other than the Rocha case, the Fresno diocese has no knowledge of the other suits, Lucido said.

In each case, the plaintiffs are seeking damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees and other financial relief.

The reporter can be reached at mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or 441-6166.

 
 

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