Judge Dismisses Priest's Defamation Suit
No Criminal Charges Filed against Priest
NBC 4 [Los Angeles CA]
May 12, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- A judge Wednesday threw out a libel lawsuit filed by a priest who alleged a sex abuse victims group defamed him by publicizing claims that he molested a woman three decades ago.
It was the first libel action ever filed against the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Monsignor Joseph F. Alzugaray alleged that SNAP defamed him when it mentioned him in leaflets distributed at his church after Erin Brady filed suit last year. The woman claimed he molested her in a church basement in Monrovia from 1968 to 1972.
SNAP attorneys argued that the group never accused the priest of molestation but merely factually reported he had been accused.
"Truth is a defense," attorney Mark Goldowitz argued.
Alzugaray's lawyer called that argument "disingenuous." Neil Papiano argued that the average person reading the leaflets would conclude that SNAP was accusing the priest.
"The normal reader would read it that 'you have to get rid of this person,"' Papiano said.
The law doesn't permit someone to "hide behind that and attempt to destroy a man's reputation," he added.
Superior Court Judge Jon M. Mayeda ruled in favor of SNAP but left intact libel claims against the priest's accuser and Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, the Beverly Hills law firm representing her. The law firm has a hearing next month on its motion to be dropped from the libel suit.
The white-haired Alzugaray, who is pastor of St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, sat with folded hands in the front row of the courtroom and did not react as the decision was announced.
Brady made her claims against Alzugaray in a lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. No criminal charges have been filed against Alzugaray. Papiano noted in court that Alzugaray was cleared by two church investigations.
Outside court, a SNAP official called Brady a "brave survivor" and said that because the priest remained in active ministry, "we are worried about the safety of youngsters around him."
"Church leaders for too long have been allowed to isolate victims, blame them as though the crime was their fault," said Mary Grant, SNAP's Southwestern regional director.
"This is a public safety issue and we're not going to be silent about it," Grant said. "Our truth is our strength."
Papiano said his client "is not a molester. He has never been a molester" and added that the judge's decision would be appealed.
"They have leaflets that have been circulated, they've gone to the newspapers, they've had demonstrations in front of churches," Papiano said. "He's been irreparably harmed. How's he ever going to try to get that kind of reputation back? Is he going to go around with a sign around his neck saying, 'I didn't do it?"'
Hundreds of lawsuits pending in California accused priests of abusing youngsters, most of them decades ago. A report released earlier this year said California's 10 Roman Catholic dioceses and two archdioceses reported 1,229 abuse claims against 502 clerics. Forty-five clerics had been exonerated, or the charges against them were proven false or were unsubstantiated.
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