Judge Expected to Set Trial Date in Abuse Cases
Move Could Push Church Lawyers to Settle out of Court
By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle [California]
October 5, 2004
An Alameda County judge is expected to set trial dates this week in a wave of child-abuse litigation against the Roman Catholic Church in Northern California, a move that could increase pressure on church attorneys to settle the cases rather than have alleged victims air their cases in public.
Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw will set dates for the first of scores of lawsuits that collectively are known as "Clergy III." Plaintiffs have sued dioceses in Northern and Central California claiming that priests molested them and that church leaders covered up the alleged abuse.
Last week, Rick Simons, a Hayward lawyer and lead counsel for the abuse claimants, asked for a January trial date for a lawsuit filed by Bob Thatcher, who says he was abused from 1979 to 1982 by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli, a now- retired priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland.
Thatcher, who now lives in Arizona and has allowed his name to a used in the abuse cases, was an altar boy under Ponciroli at St. Ignatius parish in Antioch.
In January, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron visited the parish for the first of a series of "apology services" at churches across Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Simons said in court last week that the Thatcher lawsuit would be a good test case because there is "a written memo from the bishop prior to the molestation."
Sabraw has previously ruled that plaintiffs must show that church officials were aware of abuse allegations for cases to move forward under a 2002 state law. That law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on decades-old abuse cases against the church and others who employed known child molesters.
At the time of the alleged molestation, the Diocese of Oakland was led by former Bishop John Cummins, who retired last year.
The contents of the memo that Simons cited are not public because of a temporary order Sabraw issued in August, limiting public access to church files handed over in the Clergy III cases. However, court papers filed in April give some clues as to what incriminating evidence might be contained in the memo.
On April 7 another man, identified in court records as "John Doe 51," said in a signed declaration that Ponciroli molested him in 1977 and 1978 at Our Lady of Grace parish in Castro Valley.
That same day, Simons filed a declaration repeating his request for documents "referring to any psychiatric, psychological or other therapy or counseling of Father Ponciroli."
Stephen McFeely, an attorney representing the Diocese of Oakland, conceded in court last week that the Thatcher lawsuit would be instructive as to what damages the church should pay for alleged child abuse.
McFeely said he could be ready for a trial date in the first week of March.
Sabraw is handling pretrial motions in some 150 lawsuits in Clergy III. Clergy I and Clergy II represent hundreds of similar lawsuits in Los Angeles and San Diego, litigation that has been bogged down in unsuccessful collective settlement talks.
In recent months, Sabraw has aggressively pushed the legal process forward in the Bay Area cases, citing the deadlock in Southern California.
San Francisco lawyer Paul Gaspari, the lead church counsel in Clergy III cases, told Sabraw that January was too soon to face a jury, but he conceded that "trial dates drive settlements."
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