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  Napa Priest Strikes Back with Libel Suit
Woman Charges She Was Sexually Molested More Than 30 Years Ago

By Guy Kovner gkovner@pressdemocrat.com
The Press Democrat [Fremont CA]
March 21, 2004

A Napa priest accused in a lawsuit of molesting a grade-school girl more than 30 years ago in Southern California has launched a legal counterattack, filing a libel suit against his accuser, her attorney and a national advocacy group for priest sex abuse victims.

Monsignor Joseph F. Alzugaray, pastor of St. Apollinaris Church since 2002, hired Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Neil Papiano to file the suit last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The suit alleges that Erin Brady, 44, her Los Angeles attorney, Raymond Boucher, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, defamed Alzugaray by falsely accusing him of child molestation.

"We're defending his honor," said Papiano, whose clients have included Elizabeth Taylor, the late Oakland A's owner Charles Finley and Los Angeles city officials.

But the defendants contend Alzugaray's intent is to silence them and other victims of priestly abuse, a move they say contradicts U.S. bishops' invitation to victims to come forward and to heal old wounds.

"It's clearly an intimidation tactic," said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, which claims 4,700 members in 56 chapters across the country.

Alzugaray's lawsuit, which faults SNAP for promoting claims against him, is the first time the organization has been sued in 15 years, Clohessy said.

Nearly 4,400 Catholic priests were accused of child sex abuse from 1950-2002, according to a national survey released by the church last month. No one knows how many false accusations have been made, but accused priests have filed countersuits in at least six dioceses since 2000.

Alzugaray, 62, who has served in the Santa Rosa diocese since 1995, was absolved of wrongdoing by local church officials that year and again in 2002, both times in response to informal complaints by Brady, said diocese attorney Dan Galvin.

Credible allegations of sex abuse have been made against 16 North Coast priests, involving 59 underage victims, the diocese has said. Not one is actively serving in the diocese, officials say.

Alzugaray remained in the pulpit at St. Apollinaris, with an endorsement from Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh, after Brady's allegation was included in a lawsuit filed in December accusing 28 Los Angeles Archdiocese priests of abusing children and covering up for other molesters.

That lawsuit, filed by Boucher and his colleagues, alleges that Alzugaray, during his tenure at Immaculate Conception Church in Monrovia, "sexually molested" Brady from 1967-70, while she attended the church school.

The suit also alleges that when Alzugaray transferred to the Santa Rosa Diocese his personnel file was "purged of any record of complaints."

Galvin disputed that claim, saying that Los Angeles officials sent their file on Alzugaray to Santa Rosa in 1995. A review of those records, and a subsequent investigation by Santa Rosa officials in 2002, concluded there was "no basis" for Brady's allegations against Alzugaray, Galvin said.

"We considered it a closed matter," Galvin said.

In an interview, Brady, who lives in Sierra Madre, said Alzugaray -- then a charismatic young priest fresh from the seminary -- befriended her on the playground at Immaculate Conception in 1967, when she was 8.

He allegedly molested her dozens of times over three years until she left the parochial school after fifth grade, Brady said.

Brady said she "blocked out" the abuse for two decades, until she began having "flashbacks" in her early 30s. Brady said she filed the lawsuit following denials by Alzugaray and rebuffs by church officials in Los Angeles and Santa Rosa.

"I just don't want him with kids," Brady said.

Alzugaray taught at St. Vincent High School in Petaluma from 1995 to September 2001, when he transferred to St. Apollinaris. He was named parish administrator in October 2001 and became pastor in the spring of 2002, according to diocese records.

Alzugaray's lawsuit claims that Brady's accounts of the alleged abuse are inconsistent and lack substantiation. It accuses her of launching a decade-long "campaign of harassment and defamation" against the clergyman.

Boucher and his law firm defamed Alzugaray by falsely accusing him of molestation in the lawsuit and by naming him on their Web site, Alzugaray's suit said.

Alzugaray didn't return phone calls.

The Kiesel, Boucher & Larson law firm, which collaborates with SNAP, represents more than 100 priest sex abuse victims, according to its Web site.

Tony DeMarco, an attorney with the firm, said Alzugaray's suit was "clearly designed to intimidate" the priest's accusers.

Alzugaray's lawsuit accused SNAP of libeling him in press releases and in leaflets distributed at protests at churches in Los Angeles.

Papiano said that his client wants Brady, the law firm and SNAP to simply drop their allegations against Alzugaray and issue apologies.

"All they have to do is just walk away now," he said, and no damages will be sought.

But if the case progresses, Papiano said he would incur costs that he would attempt to recover from the plaintiffs. The lawsuit, so far, has cost Alzugaray nothing, his lawyer said.

Clohessy, director of SNAP, said that since Alzugaray is still serving as a priest he has suffered no loss, and "the only fair interpretation" is that his lawsuit is an effort to silence abuse victims.

Bishops should prevent priests from filing such suits, or publicly deplore them, Clohessy said, because they "can't have it both ways," encouraging victims to come forward and allowing priests to sue them.

But Santa Rosa diocese officials determined that Alzugaray's suit is a "personal matter to protect his own reputation" and none of the bishop's business, said Deirdre Frontczak, spokeswoman for Walsh.

"The bishop finds himself in a place where there's no legal basis for him to comment," she said.

Last month, Walsh made an unscheduled visit to St. Apollinaris, where he celebrated a Saturday night Mass and told parishioners that "from his perspective he had confidence in Monsignor Alzugaray" and that parents had "no cause to be concerned about their children," Frontczak said.

Bill Peatman, a St. Apollinaris parishioner, said Alzugaray had personally assured the congregation of his innocence.

"I trust him," Peatman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457

 
 

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