Suits Alleging Clergy Abuse Flood Courts
New Challenges for Church As State Deadline Passes
By Greg Moran
January 1, 2004
What began earlier in 2003 as a slow and steady trickle of accusations of sexual abuse against Roman Catholic priests across California came to an end yesterday with a flood of lawsuits.
When the filing deadline passed yesterday, it marked the end of a difficult year for the church, accused in a numbing litany of suits of harboring pedophiles and ignoring problem priests.
As trying as last year had been, the new year may prove more challenging as dioceses prepare to defend themselves or reach settlements with hundreds of plaintiffs, lawyers said.
A count of lawsuits filed against dioceses in the state is not yet known. Plaintiffs had until 5 p.m. yesterday to file suits, and it will take several days to tally the paperwork.
But the Diocese of San Diego faces scores of individual actions and at least two class-action suits. As of yesterday, more than 100 individual lawsuits had been filed against the diocese, according to Irwin Zalkin, a Del Mar attorney who has filed about 40 of the cases.
The San Diego suits constitute one significant part of a larger crisis looming over the Roman Catholic Church in California as the national clergy abuse scandal heads into its third year.
Statewide, attorneys representing plaintiffs estimate the number of clergy abuse suits will exceed 700.
The majority, perhaps as many as 400, will be filed against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Dioceses in the Bay Area could face as many as 100 suits, according to reports.
The impact in San Diego of this litigation tidal wave will not be known for months.
But Zalkin and other lawyers estimated that the diocese could eventually pay out millions in settlements, perhaps exceeding the $85 million settlement that the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay on behalf of 523 victims – the largest figure ever offered by a Catholic diocese.
The San Diego Diocese declined to make its attorneys available for an interview for this story.
Similarly, Bishop Robert Brom, the spiritual leader of the diocese's 900,000 Catholics, declined to be interviewed.
Throughout the year, however, Brom has repeatedly said the diocese is willing to resolve abuse claims privately, without litigation. He has continued to offer "pastoral outreach" to those who say they have been abused.
The diocese did get one piece of heartening news.
An audit will be released Tuesday on how the country's nearly 200 dioceses have implemented the sexual abuse policy adopted by U.S. bishops in 2002.
In a statement released yesterday, the Diocese of San Diego said it "was found to be in total compliance with all the requirements."
In addition, the statement said, "diocesan personnel were commended for their professional and pastoral response to both victims and offenders under the direct supervision of the bishop."
Time limit lifted
The lawsuits were made possible by a special law passed by the Legislature in 2002. That law lifted for one year the normal legal time limit, known as the statute of limitations, for filing a suit alleging abuse.
Previously, suits had to be filed before people turned 26 years old, or within three years after they concluded they suffered psychological problems linked to molestation.
The expanded time limit opened the window for now-adult men and women to file suits alleging they were abused 10, 20, even 50 years earlier.
While the law requires attorneys to produce within 60 days of filing a suit reports from a mental health expert saying the person exhibited symptoms consistent with being molested, and a separate document corroborating one or more facts in the suit, such long-ago allegations present unique issues.
Many priests accused of abuse are either deceased, retired, or have left the priesthood and their whereabouts is not known.
That is the case in many San Diego Diocese cases, such as those involving the Rev. Franz Robier.
He is accused of molesting at least 18 girls from 1955 to the early 1960s while at churches in San Diego and San Bernardino counties. Robier died in 1994.
Rodrigo Valdivia, chancellor of the San Diego Diocese, said in a statement that the diocese tries to verify claims by researching church records, diocesan and parish files and interviewing people who knew either the accused, the clergy member or might have knowledge of the alleged event.
"In some instances in cases from a long time ago, or when the priest is no longer living, diocesan officials are placed in a position of having to make a judgment call," he said.
The allegations against the church, sketched in the scores of lawsuits filed in the downtown San Diego courthouse this year, span decades and cover churches from El Centro to Pacific Beach and Fontana to Chula Vista.
Split in 1978
The suits cover such a broad geographic area because for decades San Bernardino and Riverside were part of the sprawling Diocese of San Diego.
The two split off in 1978, but the San Diego Diocese is now responsible for alleged conduct of priests at churches in the Inland Empire.
The litigation also spans decades, from the World War II era to the mid-1980s. Close to 20 priests, brothers and nuns are named in the suits as perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse against minors.
In addition to molestation allegations against specific clergy, the suits allege that diocese officials were aware of offending priests but covered up the problems and transferred priests to other parishes.
Lawyers hope that the next phase will yield more information about the dioceses' conduct. The suits, which have been coordinated under a single judge in Los Angeles County, are scheduled to go first to mediation sessions.
At those sessions, attorneys are expected to begin demanding certain documents from the diocese. In turn, they will have to release some information about their clients.
"I think we will end up seeing some documents on some priests that they were aware of who had problems," said Raymond Boucher, a Beverly Hills lawyer whose firm represents hundreds of plaintiffs in Southern California. "And I think we'll see they did not take enough steps to assure the problems were addressed and corrected."
An advocate for victims alleging abuse also said that a full accounting of the actions and decisions of church officials is important.
"I think what victims deserve is a full disclosure of all the abuse, all the crimes that have occurred, so that it doesn't happen again," said Mary Grant, the southwest coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"The church has to come clean, for the very first time."
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