Bay Area Dioceses Have Day in Court:
Judge Hears Arguments on Whether Decades-Old Church Sex-Abuse Cases Should Move Forward
By Laura Counts
July 16, 2004
OAKLAND -- Lawyers for six of the 150 men and women who have filed sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church in Northern California made their first stand in court Thursday to argue there's enough grounds for the decades-old cases to proceed.
The issues raised in these cases -- three of them against the Diocese of Oakland -- will affect whether many of the hundreds of others in the state will go forward, church and victims' lawyers agree.
Like other clergy-abuse cases across the country, these center on whether the church knew about the molestation and turned a blind eye, covering it up and shuffling abusers to other parishes.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw had issued a tentative ruling that two of the cases could advance. They were filed by four men in their 50s who contend the Rev. Arthur Ribeiro, a priest at Queen of All Saints Parish in Concord from 1962 to 1982, molested them. He is now deceased.
The men say Ribeiro molested them repeatedly, often taking them out of class at the Catholic school where he served and tying them up and masturbating them, or forcing them to masturbate him while he was tied up. One man said the priest stuffed his underwear in his mouth when he screamed.
"I was raped by Father Ribeiro when I was 14 (on two occasions). I told the pastor about it two weeks later in confession," said a 55-year-old Lafayette man who attended the hearing and wants to be identified as John Doe 1. "He assured me (Ribeiro) wouldn't bother me again, which he didn't. But the only thing the church did was transfer him and promote him."
Another case involves Stephen Miller Kiesle, a priest accused of molesting a boy at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Pinole and Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City. Kiesle also served in Fremont and has been
accused over the years of molesting boys and girls, but criminal charges were dropped because the statute of limitations expired.
Kiesle was defrocked in 1978 following a conviction for molesting two boys, and he served time for another molestation conviction.
The fourth case under discussion Thursday was filed by a Contra Costa resident who attended a Franciscan seminary in Santa Barbara. That case and the Kiesle case center on whether plaintiffs can prove the church should be held automatically responsible for the abuse because of its policy of secrecy and transferring priests.
The Northern California clergy-abuse cases have been bundled together in a mega-case known as "Clergy Three." Hundreds of other cases in Los Angeles and San Diego are bundled into "Clergy One" and "Clergy Two."
The Northern California cases cover dioceses from Santa Rosa to Monterey. The flood of cases were made possible by a recent law sponsored by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco. It lifted the statute of limitations on lawsuits against churches, schools and other institutions that allowed employees to molest children. Victims had to file their cases during 2003.
The victim in the Ribeiro case, John Doe 1, said he was elated by the chance to finally have his day in court. He had tried to sue Ribeiro twice before but was blocked by the statute of limitations.
There are some 42 cases pending against the Diocese of Oakland involving eight priests, said attorney Stephen McFeely, who is representing the diocese.
The diocese attorneys argued the cases should be dismissed because it is impossible for the diocese to adequately defend itself against emotionally charged "innuendo and speculation" rather than hard evidence.
"Everybody is dead," he said, referring to the bishop and other key officials at the time of the Ribeiro molestations. "Making inferences about something somebody did 40 years ago is ridiculous. The older the case gets, the harder it is."
The plaintiffs must prove church officials knew about Ribeiro's acts. Even if John Doe 1 told another priest during confession, that was after the fact -- and information priests learn in confession is not admissible in court, McFeely argued.
But Rick Simons, an attorney representing all 150 Northern California plaintiffs, disputed that. He said confessions are not protected unless "absolution" is requested, and the boy had been seeking help rather than spiritual forgiveness.
Simons said it should have been clear to the church that Ribeiro was engaging in a pattern of abuse in the small parish, and he argues a 1962 Vatican document laid out a policy of keeping molestation absolutely secret.
The cases represent part of the healing process for victims, Simons said after the hearing. Monetary rewards, which could reach millions of dollars, are just one way of ensuring it does not happen again, he said.
"We want the price to be so high that it will discourage anyone from allowing this to happen," he said. "It's the one language, in Latin or English, that the bishops and the church understand."
Thursday's hearing will be followed by further arguments over the summer. Sabraw set a final hearing for Aug. 25, after which he will make a final ruling on whether the cases will go to trial.
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