Sex Abuse Lawsuits Could Be Combined
Judge to Decide If Coordination Process Will Be Used

San Francisco Chronicle [Los Angeles CA]
April 9, 2004

A Los Angeles judge is considering whether to consolidate scores of molestation lawsuits against Roman Catholic priests from courtrooms across Northern California and send them to a single judge for pretrial proceedings.

Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy deferred a ruling Thursday after two hours of arguments from attorneys for the church, who favor the move, and the plaintiffs, who say it would delay cases that are nearing trial to await rulings in less advanced cases.

The procedure, called coordination, was used 18 months ago to streamline proceedings in at least 400 cases from the Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Orange dioceses. The church and plaintiffs have been involved in mediation since then.

But about 150 cases pending against dioceses in Northern California have proceeded individually. About 10 percent have trial dates set, said Rick Simmons, a plaintiffs' attorney from Northern California.

The defendants are the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the dioceses of Fresno, Monterey, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton.

Coordination allows one judge to oversee discovery -- each side's examination of the other's witnesses and documents before trial -- and rule on legal questions that apply to all cases. The cases would still be tried individually in the counties of origin.

The ruling will determine the future of a flood of litigation that resulted from state legislation temporarily lifting the deadline for filing civil lawsuits against churches over alleged sexual molestation. Attorneys have estimated up to 800 people sued California dioceses before a one-year window that ended Dec. 31.

Church attorneys argued Thursday that appointing one judge for all Northern California cases would eliminate inconsistencies in court rulings from county to county and would reduce the cost and strain on the courts.

Paul Gaspari, attorney for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and the dioceses of Santa Rosa and Monterey, says if the cases go to appeal, under the current system they would wind up in three different state appellate courts. The San Francisco Archdiocese says it faces 66 suits involving 23 priests, only 12 of whom are still alive.

But attorneys for the plaintiffs say coordinating the cases under one judge would cause undue delay.

"We've got cases that are ready to go to trial in five or six weeks" but would be delayed indefinitely by coordination, Stockton attorney Laurence Drivon said after the hearing. He said he represented 70 to 75 Northern California plaintiffs.

Attorney Diane Josephs told McCoy that lawyers were worried they would be asked to stop discovery in their cases if coordination was ordered.

"This is going to completely demoralize the parties," said Jean Starcevich, attorney for plaintiffs in three Northern California counties. "These kids, some of them are just barely hanging on," he said, referring to alleged victims.

If McCoy orders coordination, he will also decide where to center the legal proceedings. The church favors Santa Clara County, while plaintiffs' attorneys prefer San Francisco or Alameda County.

Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report.


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