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  Unifying Sex Abuse Lawsuits Proposed
Plan Would Bundle 12 Santa Rosa Diocese Molestation Cases into One Class-Action Complaint

By Guy Kovner gkovner@pressdemocrat.com
The Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]
January 11, 2004

In a move that could finally resolve the Santa Rosa Catholic diocese's long-standing legal woes, a new sexual abuse lawsuit proposes consolidation of 11 existing actions so they could be settled with one lump sum payment.

A lawyer for the alleged victims of sexual abuse by North Coast priests said the class-action case could be a boon to the 150,000-member diocese, still recovering from a $16 million deficit attributed to a former bishop's mismanagement.

"It just makes sense from a business standpoint," said Joseph George, a Sacramento attorney for nine alleged victims.

But Dan Galvin, the diocese attorney, said he already is working to settle all the claims through mediation, not class action.

"It's in everybody's best interest to try and resolve these cases sooner rather than later," Galvin said. Healing and reconciliation can follow financial settlements, he said.

In any event, the scandal-plagued diocese is at or near the end of its legal exposure to lawsuits for long-past child molest cases.

The class-action suit and another claim, both filed Dec. 24, came at the close of a one-year legal window that allowed civil complaints of decades-old child sex abuse to be filed in 2003.

About 800 cases were filed statewide against the Catholic Church, the vast majority -- about 675 -- in Southern California, the Associated Press reported.

Unless the Legislature extends it, the legal window is now closed, lawyers said, although some plaintiffs might still join the proposed class-action case.

Galvin said 12 lawsuits are pending against the Santa Rosa Diocese, where allegations of child abuse by priests have been made, and some claims settled, since 1994.

George said he and his colleagues filed nine of the current lawsuits. Two more were filed by other attorneys, and another claim was filed in San Francisco, Galvin said.

Of the suits filed by George, four allege abuse by former priest Don Kimball, three relate to former priest Gary Timmons and two accuse the Rev. Patrick Gleeson, who died in 1991.

Timmons was convicted of molestation; the diocese settled a suit against Kimball, whose conviction for child molestation was vacated after a Supreme Court ruling last year.

Victims' lawyers have said the cases could cost the diocese millions of dollars, and church officials have warned that settlements could siphon resources from spiritual and social missions.

"The church needs some finality to this," Galvin said.

Once a "finite number" of victims has been established, Galvin said the diocese could work toward "adequate compensation of those who needed it."

George, a Sacramento attorney, said all pending lawsuits could be consolidated by the class-action complaint, although people could always opt out of the class.

But both he and Galvin said there is no guarantee a judge will certify the class-action case, since the circumstances of each alleged molestation are different.

A class-action lawsuit typically involves plaintiffs who have the same experience, such as a group of people cheated by a company or harmed by a product, George said.

"I don't know that the law squarely fits a class-action in these types of cases," he said.

Galvin said he thought the plaintiff's argument for a class-action suit was "defective."

The class-action suit was filed on behalf of an anonymous victim, "Rebecca Doe," who alleged she was molested in 1976. A companion suit was filed on behalf of another anonymous victim, "Susan Doe," 49, who alleged she was abused in 1971 at Sacred Heart Church in Eureka.

Both women are alleged victims of Kimball, George said.

The suits claim that church officials "knew or should have known" children were being molested and failed to stop it.

The diocese "maintained a web of predatory priests and other clergy who perpetrated criminal acts of child sexual abuse," the Rebecca Doe suit said.

Criminal prosecution of child molesters is now barred on crimes that occurred before 1988. The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled unconstitutional a California law allowing prosecution of decades-old cases, setting free hundreds of accused molesters, including Kimball.

Kimball's prosecution followed the diocese's $1.6 million settlement in 2000 of a lawsuit brought against Kimball by four people.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or gkovner@pressdemocrat.com.

 
 

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