Attorney Says Calif. Catholic Diocese Lays Blame on Abuse Victim

By Richard N. Ostling
Associated Press, carried in Herald Tribune [California]
Downloaded August 21, 2003

A California attorney is accusing Roman Catholic officials in the Stockton Diocese of blaming the victim in a sex abuse lawsuit.

The reason for the claim: a church filing that says the plaintiff - 11 or 12 when the alleged abuse started - "did not exercise ordinary care, caution or prudence to avoid" damage to himself.

The diocese, meanwhile, says the criticism is off-base and unfair.

The diocese "unequivocally does not take the position that the victim is responsible in any way for that abuse," Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire said Wednesday.

Blaire's lawyer, who prepared the court filing, says the disputed language is not meant to apply to the molestation itself, but only claims of damage later on - when the victim was an adult.

That doesn't satisfy John Manly of Costa Mesa, Calif., who represents the anonymous plaintiff. "I find the defense being asserted to be an embarrassment to my church, frankly," he said. "Bishop Blaire ought to be ashamed of himself."

U.S. dioceses have mostly avoided hardball legal tactics, such as attributing sexual contact partly to the victim or negligence by the victim's parents, since sex abuse by clergy erupted into a huge nationwide scandal last year.

In the new sex abuse policy they issued last year, the U.S. bishops pledged to undertake "a pastoral outreach to repair the breach with" victims. The bishops said we will "do all we can to heal the trauma that victims/survivors and their families are suffering."

The Stockton victim, who now lives in Oregon, says ex-priest Oliver O'Grady of St. Anne parish in Lodi, Calif., molested him some 150 times beginning in the early 1970s. The suit also contends the diocese hid relevant information about O'Grady's molestation record from parishioners and police.

A defense response filed July 25 for Blaire says the victim "did not exercise ordinary care, caution or prudence" and resulting damages "if any, were proximately caused and contributed to by the negligence of (the) plaintiff."

Blaire's attorney, Paul Balestracci, said the document was "standard legal pleading" in response to sweeping generalizations in the lawsuit. He said the phrasing about the victim's own negligence referred only to damage he said he suffered as an adult.

Balestracci called it "a complete and gross mischaracterization" to say the diocese suggests "a child is responsible for what happened to him."

Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has represented over 800 victims and won a major case against the Stockton Diocese, said no diocese has sought to blame a victim in any case he has handled for at least three years.

Before that, Anderson said, church lawyers only rarely used phrasing such as what's in the Stockton filing, which never worked legally but was "successful in wreaking havoc and causing pain for the victims and their families."

The Stockton Diocese also contends that the civil lawsuit violates its religious freedom under the state and federal constitutions.

In a separate criminal case, O'Grady pleaded guilty to molestation in 1993, served seven years in prison and was deported to his native Ireland in 2000.

The lawsuit accuses O'Grady and the diocese of various acts including sexual abuse, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligent supervision.

The alleged abuse incidents would have occurred when the late Merlin Guilfoyle was bishop. Blaire became Stockton bishop in 1999.

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