Trial Set in Priest Abuse Lawsuit
Church Backed out of Settlement with SR Woman
By Guy Kovner
The Press Democrat [California]
October 9, 2004
Former Santa Rosa resident Roberta Saum's lawsuit against defrocked priest Don Kimball and Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh is among the first five cases set for trial out of more than 700 Catholic priest misconduct suits statewide.
"That's a breakthrough," said Hayward attorney Rick Simons, who is handling the sex abuse victims' cases from Northern and Central California.
Alameda County Judge Ronald Sabraw's order this week setting Saum's and four other cases for trial next year is the first for the hundreds of cases filed last year by alleged victims of decades-old child molestation by Catholic priests.
Saum's case was set for trial May 16. The scandal-roiled Santa Rosa diocese faces 10 additional lawsuits.
Attorneys on both sides said trial dates prompt settlements, and Sabraw ordered the lawyers to begin discussions by Dec. 6, including the possibility of a "global settlement" for about 160 cases consolidated before Sabraw.
More than 560 cases have been consolidated in Southern California, where no trial dates have been set, Simons said.
Saum's attorney said the Santa Rosa diocese, having failed to pay a $3 million settlement negotiated earlier this year, now faces the prospect of a trial and jury award he said that could be double that amount.
Stockton lawyer Larry Drivon said Friday he is withdrawing his proposal to settle Saum's case for $3 million, which would equal the record settlement to a single victim in California.
"They went sideways," Drivon said of the Catholic Church. "They backed out on the settlement and now it's time to go to trial. We'll go to trial and get double that."
Paul Gaspari, the San Francisco lawyer defending the diocese in Saum's case, said he could not comment on the details of the settlement talks, which he said were confidential.
"I can't talk about it," Gaspari said.
But in court papers Gaspari said that an undisclosed settlement amount had been proposed at a mediation session Feb. 28, and the diocese agreed to attempt to pay it within 60 days.
"Defendant (diocese) was not able to fund that amount," Gaspari's motion said.
A previous mediation session had been continued because the Santa Rosa diocese had just learned its "primary defense (insurance) carrier" had been placed into receivership in Texas, the motion said.
As a result, Drivon said he is not inclined to consider a settlement with the diocese and will seek a jury verdict instead. "You can't back out of a verdict," he said. "You pay a verdict."
Drivon, who has handled hundreds of California clergy sex abuse cases, said only two have gone to trial and both were his cases. One resulted in a $7.5 million settlement by the Stockton diocese with two men; the other in a $1 million settlement by the Oakland diocese.
Gaspari said the church's lawyers proposed and the judge approved an "organized mediation process" aimed at resolving the 160 cases. A global settlement - like the $84 million the Boston Archdiocese agreed to pay 552 victims - is one possibility, he said.
Settlements might also be reached on a diocese-by-diocese basis, Gaspari said.
Wary of settlements that could be as high as $3 million per case, the Santa Rosa diocese's lawyer, Dan Galvin, has said the diocese could be forced into bankruptcy by the litigation.
The Portland archdiocese and Tucson diocese both filed for bankruptcy this year in the face of multimillion-dollar sex-abuse settlements.
The Santa Rosa diocese has acknowledged payments of $8.6 million to victims of sexual abuse spanning the past 40 years.
Sixteen priests, including Kimball, have been accused of sexual misconduct, according to the diocese, which also found there were 59 underage victims.
Saum, who grew up in Santa Rosa and attended Resurrection Parish, testified at Kimball's criminal trial in 2002, when he was found guilty of molesting another girl.
Saum, a software engineer who now lives in the Sierra foothills, said she was abused and exploited by Kimball from 1976 to 1982. Kimball's conviction was erased by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California could not prosecute decades-old sex abuse cases.
But a separate law, which Drivon helped write, allowed victims to file civil lawsuits during 2003 for old crimes.
About 160 suits, representing about 200 victims from Santa Rosa and seven other dioceses, were consolidated under Sabraw.
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