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  Abuse Lawsuit against Priest Heads to Trial

By Bob Campbell
Midland Reporter-Telegram
December 9, 2005

District Judge George Gilles has set arguments for 10 a.m. Dec. 16 on pre-trial motions in a sexual abuse lawsuit against former Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church Rev. Domingo Gonzalez Estrada, the Catholic Diocese and bishop of San Angelo.

Filed in 142nd District Court by Dallas attorney Lori Watson, the lawsuit alleges the now 64-year-old priest molested a now 22-year-old Midland man genitally and anally six times from 1989-93. Unspecified damages are sought.

Estrada, who is still a priest in the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate order and living in the San Antonio area, was tried on six felony charges and acquitted on all counts Dec. 2, 2004, by a 238th District Court jury.

"The judge will be hearing two motions for summary judgment and a motion to complete the interrogatory," Watson's legal assistant told the Reporter-Telegram Thursday afternoon. "We will also get a scheduling order."

She explained that a scheduling order will outline the steps leading to a trial.

When asked if Estrada's criminal acquittals will make a civil settlement more difficult to win, Watson's spokeswoman said Watson, a partner in the Windle Turley Law Offices firm, will not comment on that issue before trial.

Civil defense lawyers are Leslie McLaughlin of Midland for Estrada, Don Griffis of San Angelo for the diocese and Bishop Michael Pfeifer and William Clifton Jr. of Midland for the Missionary Oblates, an order of French priests organized to rebuild France after the French Revolution and undertake "difficult missions" including serving the poor.

Represented by Midland attorney Tom Morgan in the criminal trial last year, Estrada could have gotten five to 99 years or life in prison if found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child and two to 20 years on each of the other five counts of indecency with a child. The diocese paid Morgan to defend Estrada, according to court documents. Unfolding more than 70 points of dispute on a large tablet, the attorney argued that the alleged victim was financially motivated. Evidence was introduced that the man, 10 years old in 1993, had known Odessa attorney Steve Brannan was contacted in his behalf before Brannan wrote a "demand letter" to Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio on March 18, 2004.

Brannan told Flores he was representing the alleged victim and his family and the archdiocese could avoid a civil lawsuit if it would "settle the claims."

But the young man testified that at the time, he was not seeking money from the diocese or archdiocese and he told Brannan in a certified letter Oct. 26, 2004, to stop sending demand letters to the diocese.

Morgan contended the man had first contacted Brannan in 2002 and only took the lawyer off the case a week before the trial. "If Father 'Mingo is found guilty, the Catholic Church is going to be sued," Morgan told jurors at the time.

The bishop expressed pleasure after the verdict. "I'm always sad when I hear a priest accused of sexual abuse of a minor, but I'm so happy to know the jury didn't find Father Domingo guilty," the Pfeifer said just after the acquittal.

Pfeifer did not attend any part of Estrada's trial.

"When there is a true victim, you always reach out and offer assistance. I followed the trial through a representative and did not hear or read where the offer I made of assistance was ever brought up. I offered to help the supposed victim through two priests in Midland almost two years ago."

Efforts to reach Pfeifer late Thursday were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Betty Dickerson, executive director of the Midland Rape Crisis and Children's Advocacy Center, is glad the case is coming to trial again. "With a civil suit, the preponderance of evidence is 51 percent whereas in a criminal case it has to be beyond a reasonable doubt," Dickerson said.

"This is just another avenue victims can take regarding sexual abuse. Every assault victim has this option and I think each one has to make that decision for themselves. It is certainly something under the law that they can do."

 
 

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