Judge Orders Abuse Case to Trial
By Michael Fisher
The Press-Enterprise [California]
January 12, 2007
San Diego - Saying he will allow no more delays, a judge on Friday ordered trial to start next month in a lawsuit accusing a Catholic priest of molesting a teenager in Highland 34 years ago, making the case the first of Southern California's 850 pending clergy abuse lawsuits poised to reach a jury.
"Whether it's agreeable or not, a firm trial date in February will occur," San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Einhorn told attorneys on the case, adding that the Feb. 14 trial date "assures (this) case will be the first of the San Diego cases to go to trial, which has been the court's hope."
In the lawsuit, a Colorado woman accuses a longtime Inland priest, Monsignor Patrick J. O'Keeffe, of sexually abusing her in 1972, when she was a 17-year-old parishioner at St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland.
Her lawsuit names the church and the Diocese of San Diego, of which Inland parishes were a part before the San Bernardino Diocese was formed in 1978.
Attorneys for the San Diego Diocese cautioned Einhorn that a mid-February trial could be too soon, citing the number of witnesses yet to be interviewed by attorneys. Diocesan attorney Dan White said starting in mid-February "is going to crunch everybody."
Einhorn dismissed the concerns, citing previous delays. The trial had been scheduled to start next week.
Katherine Freberg, the Colorado woman's attorney, said she requested the postponement until next month because she is waiting for another judge to finish reviewing the diocese's personnel file on O'Keeffe. That judge is determining what, if any, of that paperwork her client is entitled to.
The O'Keeffe case is the first of five lawsuits scheduled to start trial in San Diego in the coming months. Attorneys for those suing the diocese in the other lawsuits expressed concern at Friday's hearing that delaying the O'Keeffe case could result in postponements in their own cases.
Freberg said outside court that there have been no recent settlement talks in the case.
"It's clear the Diocese of San Diego wants to try some of these cases, and this gives us the opportunity to present . . . what the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino did over a number of years in protecting pedophile priests," Freberg said.
Her client was not in the courtroom Friday. But Freberg said the woman is prepared to testify "to expose what the diocese has done."
O'Keeffe, now 70, spent 35 years working at Inland churches.
He was dismissed from all parish duties in 1994 after the San Bernardino Diocese settled a lawsuit brought by one of three adult women who had accused him of sexual misconduct, diocesan officials have said.
He returned to his native Ireland in 2002, just weeks before San Bernardino County prosecutors charged him with 15 felony counts of oral copulation with a minor related to the Colorado woman's accusations.
Those charges were later dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.
Freberg said attorneys deposed O'Keeffe last year in Ireland but he has declined to return for the trial.
Officials with the San Bernardino Diocese said Friday they have not had any contact with O'Keeffe.
The retired priest also faces accusations of sexual abuse from three other women, including allegations that he fondled a girl in 1990 when she was a 14-year-old student at St. Margaret Mary School in Chino.
Some of the accusers are identified in court documents. Their names are being withheld by The Press-Enterprise, which does not routinely identify people who may have been victims of sexual abuse.
Reach Michael Fisher at 951-368-9470 or mfisher@PE.com
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