Church Facing Mega-Suit
Hearing Opens Today on More Than 150 Sex-Abuse Cases
By Don Lattin firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco Chronicle Religion [Oakland]
July 15, 2004
More than 150 lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in Northern California have been bundled into a litigious mega-case filed on the behalf of men and women who say they were sexually abused by priests when they were growing up decades ago in Catholic churches from Santa Rosa to Monterey.
Today, dozens of lawyers with their own stake in those claims will gather in Oakland when Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw hears key pre-trial motions.
The combined lawsuits are known as "Clergy Three." "Clergy One" and "Clergy Two" represent hundreds of additional abuse claims that have been filed and combined in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Most of this litigation is the result of a bill sponsored by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, adopted by the Legislature and signed into law in July 2002 by former Gov. Gray Davis.
It lifted the statute of limitations last year on lawsuits filed against churches, schools and other institutions that negligently allowed employees to molest children.
Today's hearing on "Clergy Three" comes just 10 days after the Archdiocese of Portland became the first Catholic diocese in the nation to declare bankruptcy. That action followed the pay out of $53 million to settle more than 130 claims of priestly abuse. It also suspended another 20 lawsuits in Oregon seeking more than $340 million in damages.
In Northern California, the Catholic dioceses of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Modesto say the child sex abuse scandal in the church has cost them more than $35 million in court judgments, settlements and related costs.
There's no way to reliably estimate the financial fallout from the 150 to 200 lawsuits still pending against Catholic dioceses in the Bay Area.
That's because -- unlike in Oregon -- civil lawsuits in California don't ask for specific punitive damages when they are filed.
But one of the leading lawyers representing alleged abuse victims says his consortium of attorneys will introduce evidence that will "shake the Catholic Church to its roots."
According to Larry Drivon, those roots reach back to Rome and a confidential 1962 Vatican document called Crimen sollicitationis, which is Latin for "Instructions on Proceeding in Cases of the Crime of Solicitation."
The document was discovered and brought to light last summer by the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a longtime advocate for abuse victims who served on the Vatican's staff in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.
Doyle is best known as co-author of a confidential 1985 report to U.S. bishops in which he warned that sexual abuse litigation could cost the Catholic Church "many millions of dollars" and cause "devastating injury to its image."
Lawyers on the two sides of the abuse litigation disagree as to the import of the 1962 document, which was sent out at the time to all the Catholic bishops in the world.
It defines "solicitation" as a priest attempting to solicit or provoke "the object of temptation ... toward impure and obscene matters, whether by words or signs or nods of the head, whether by touch or by writing."
The document states that a bishop may deal with errant priests in several ways. He may "remove him from some ministry ... transfer him to another [assignment]" or refer his case to a Vatican "inquisition."
It goes on to state that these cases must "be pursued in a most secretive way" and are to be "restrained by a perpetual silence."
Drivon says the document shows that "the Vatican is involved in an international conspiracy to obstruct justice."
"And that is not some black helicopter, wacky lawyer kind of statement," he added. "This is the blueprint for the cover-up, which is exactly what happened."
San Francisco attorney Paul Gaspari, the lead lawyer for the Catholic Church in "Clergy Three," called the Vatican document "a red herring."
"That document has been misinterpreted, misconstrued and misapplied," Gaspari said. "I don't believe there is a California bishop who was even aware of the existence of that document until they read about it in the paper."
San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, who served as the Archbishop of Portland from 1986 to 1995, said in an April 7 deposition that he had never seen Crimen sollicitationis.
Levada was also asked in his deposition if he recalls reading Doyle's 1985 memo warning the bishops of a fast-approaching sex abuse scandal.
"You know, that's a long time, and it would be difficult for me to say that I recall having seen it before," he said. "I may have seen it before, but I don't recall it now."
Levada was then asked whether he had spoken with Doyle about the memo in 1985, and on the advice of the archbishop's attorney, Levada declined to answer.
Maurice Healy, spokesman for Levada and the archdiocese, said the archbishop was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Doyle told The Chronicle in an interview Wednesday that he had met Levada and discussed the coming crisis outlined in the memo at a meeting at the Marriott Hotel near O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in May 1985.
At the time, Doyle said, Levada was an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles and had been assigned by Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to meet with Doyle and the two co-authors of the now-famous memo.
Law would later resign as the archbishop of Boston for his role in covering up the abuse scandal.
Doyle said the 1962 Vatican document and the U.S. bishops lack of action following his own 1985 report were all part of a long campaign of secrecy designed to cover up sexual abuse by priests.
While the 1962 Vatican document may not be a smoking gun, Doyle said, "it is a clear indication of the overall mind-set on the local level and at the Vatican."
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