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  Abuse Claims Blame Church Officials
Response Ranges from Sympathy to Cynicism

By Brandon Bailey
Mercury News [California]
December 29, 2003

For more than 40 years, the man said, he struggled with the emotional aftermath of being sexually abused by an uncle who was a respected Roman Catholic priest. Then he read that a dozen younger men came forward last year to accuse the same priest of molesting them.

The priest's nephew said he felt both sadness and admiration for those who had the courage to reveal their secret pain. "We're now getting together and we're talking," he said. "We're finding some relief and comfort in doing that."

They are doing more than talking: This month, the 57-year-old nephew filed a lawsuit seeking damages and alleging that his mother told church authorities in 1959 that the Rev. Joseph Pritchard had molested her son -- nearly two decades before the priest allegedly abused dozens more children at St. Martin of Tours parish in San Jose.

In the past 12 months, attorneys said, about 100 men and women have filed lawsuits that lay the blame for childhood sexual abuse -- by Pritchard and other priests -- squarely at the feet of Catholic church officials in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco.

Hundreds more claims have been filed around the state, under a California law that temporarily extended the right of molestation victims to seek damages from institutions that failed to protect them despite having "reason to know" an employee was a molester. The extension ends Wednesday.

The response from church officials has ranged from sympathy to cynicism. While some church leaders say they support efforts to close old wounds, an official at the Archdiocese of San Francisco suggested the law was simply a "full employment act" for attorneys hoping to cash in on the clergy sex-abuse scandal that swept the nation in 2002.

Settlements reached

Already this year, several lawsuits have led to financial settlements by Catholic institutions and their insurance carriers, including two in the East Bay and one in San Francisco for $1 million apiece.

Church officials say they can't predict the financial impact from the scores of additional pending cases. In some cases, they are feuding with insurance companies over who should pay. Still, they have downplayed comparisons to the Archdiocese of Boston, where officials mortgaged a cathedral to help pay a $90 million settlement with abuse victims.

As the claims move through the legal system, they are shedding new light on the stories of a handful of abusive priests and the institutions that employed them, and of those who say they suffered for years after being molested.

"All these Catholic kids who were molested in the church -- they grew up thinking they were the only ones," said Terrie Light, coordinator of a victims' support group. "This is helping to allow the truth of what happened to come out."

In the East Bay, for example, victims' attorneys have obtained records from 1975 that show then-Bishop Floyd Begin of Oakland met with parishioners who complained that the Rev. Robert Ponciroli touched their sons' genitals.

Ponciroli was eventually reassigned to other parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties -- where he was later accused of molesting several other boys before he was removed from ministry in 1995.

Hayward attorney Richard Simons contends the Oakland diocese repeatedly ignored warnings about abusive priests. Church representatives say complaints about abuse are handled much differently today.

"One thing to keep in mind when you are talking about these cases -- you're not talking about stuff that happened in the last 15 years," said Stephen McFeely, an attorney for the Oakland diocese.

Many recent lawsuits were brought by adults who were molested as children in the 1960s and 1970s. They have come forward now because the Legislature created a one-year exemption to a statute of limitations that usually requires such victims to sue before their 26th birthday.

Victims' advocates say it can take decades for people who were molested to confront what happened -- often after years of depression, anger, addictions and troubled relationships.

Without disputing that some abuse occurred, church attorney Paul Gaspari noted that many of the lawsuits "are concentrated on a few alleged perpetrators," who are not the majority of priests.

In the Pritchard case, 20 men and one woman have joined lawsuits alleging the San Jose priest molested them in the late 1970s when he was pastor at St. Martin of Tours parish. Pritchard died in 1988. The suits are filed against the Diocese of San Jose and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which supervised San Jose parishes until 1981.

As in Oakland, victims suspect church officials ignored warnings about Pritchard.

"Every day, you just become more convinced that this whole thing could have been prevented," said John Salberg, a former student at the St. Martin parish school.

The allegations by Pritchard's nephew may bolster that argument, although parts are difficult to confirm.

Details of lawsuit

The nephew's lawsuit says he remembers at least two incidents in the late 1950s when the priest forced the boy to masturbate him. The boy was about 10, and Pritchard, in his early 30s, was teaching at a Catholic high school in San Mateo.

The abuse stopped in 1959, the nephew said, when he refused his uncle's invitation to spend the night in the priest's quarters and his mother asked why he was so upset. The nephew said he told his mother what happened, and she then questioned another son who described similar abuse.

"I remember she started crying. She was so shocked," said the man, who spoke on condition his name would not be printed. "She went the next day to Serra High School and told the principal that `One of your priests has molested two of my sons.' "

The man's parents and the principal are long dead. Attorneys say they have no record of the mother's complaint.

"I've seen no evidence to suggest that anyone at Serra knew or had any suspicions of any problems with Father Pritchard," Gaspari said. "He was there for 14 or 15 years and had what appears to be an exemplary career."

But attorney Michael Zimmer, who represents the nephew, contends the mother was "brushed off." Zimmer said he suspects Pritchard had earlier victims; he is hoping others will come forward.

Attorneys have gleaned other details about Pritchard.

The parents of one St. Martin student said they wrote a letter complaining about Pritchard molesting their son in the late 1970s. While church officials say they have no record of that, attorneys say they have learned Pritchard spent time at a Midwestern treatment center after he left St. Martin's in 1979.

Church officials said Pritchard went there because of a drinking problem, according to Robert Tobin, an attorney for several St. Martin victims. Tobin and others say it was not unusual in those days for church leaders to cite alcoholism as a cover for pedophilia.

Most of the St. Martin lawsuits have been filed by two groups of lawyers who are becoming known for suing the church in such cases.

Eleven former St. Martin students are represented by Simons and Larry and David Drivon of Stockton.

Another 10 former students are represented by Tobin and attorneys Jean Starcevich and Robert L. Mezzetti II.

Despite the financial toll of past settlements, the head of the Jesuit order in California said he tries to focus on the victims, not the lawsuits.

"People were hurt," said the Rev. Thomas Smolich. "I hope this is good for people, to come forward. It's important to have that process of healing and moving on."

 
 

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