|Settlement in Sex Abuse Suit
By Martin Espinoza
The Press Democrat
September 12, 2007
The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese has settled a sex abuse lawsuit involving fugitive priest Xavier Ochoa for $5,020,000 - with $20,000 coming from Bishop Daniel Walsh's own funds.
The diocese will pay 10 people from insurance funds and proceeds from the sale of orchard property adjacent to St. Eugene's church in Santa Rosa, according to attorneys for both sides of the suit.
Ochoa, who most recently was a priest at St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, remains at large and is thought to have fled to Mexico in May 2006, a week after admitting to Walsh and other church officials sexual improprieties with several children.
Diocesan attorney Adrienne Moran of Santa Rosa said no parish, school or other ministry funds were used to settle the case. She said the settlement came after mediation between the two sides on Aug. 27.
"We could have spent years fighting these cases, but the diocese had extremely limited money available and every dollar that would have been spent on defense was one less dollar that could be used to compensate the victims," said Moran.
Moran said Walsh's $20,000 contribution came from his ministerial stipends, funds he receives for performing such events as weddings and baptisms. Other details of the settlement and specific disbursement to victims are to remain confidential, the attorneys said.
"The $20,000 was money that the bishop was willing to contribute from his own pocket in order to get this deal done," said Moran. "That shows the length that he's willing to go to compensate the victims and resolve their claim."
Walsh was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday attending a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Neither his secretary nor diocesan spokeswoman Diedre Frontczak would make Walsh available for comment.
The settlement is the latest in a series of payouts that now totals nearly $25 million to dozens of victims of sex abuse by priests during the past four decades.
The suit was filed Oct. 10, 2006 by attorneys Mike Meadows of Walnut Creek and Michael Fiumara and Peter Duarte of Santa Rosa. It alleged that the Santa Rosa Diocese, through Walsh and prior bishops, was negligent in supervising Ochoa, and that church officials failed to conduct a background check on Ochoa and allowed him unsupervised access to children, enabling his sexual misconduct.
The alleged abuse began in 1984, when Ochoa was a priest assigned to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
In one case, Ochoa began molesting a 12-year-old boy from a poor family he befriended more than 20 years ago, according to the lawsuit. The suit stated that the abuse included "genital fondling, oral copulation, and anal copulation. These acts frequently took place in the home of Ochoa, which was attached to the premises of the local church."
Two years later, Ochoa convinced the boy's family to give the priest custody of the child and let him bring him to the United States. Similar abuse continued while Ochoa and the boy lived in housing owned and maintained by the Santa Rosa Diocese, according to the court documents.
The suit also described the case of another youth, now in his late 20s, whom Ochoa frequently brought to his diocese-owned residence in Sonoma County. The lawsuit states Ochoa often awakened the boy and subjected him to sexual activity.
The Ochoa case was a severe blow to Walsh, who himself became embroiled in controversy after he delayed reporting Ochoa to the proper authorities.
On April 28, Ochoa told Walsh and church officials that he offered a Sonoma boy $100 for a strip tease and then kissed him on the lips. Three days passed before Walsh, through diocesan attorney Dan Galvin, reported Ochoa to Sonoma County Child Protective Services and four days before the Sheriff's Department was notified. State law requires such reporting be done immediately by phone.
Late last year, Walsh, who came to Santa Rosa in 2000 with a mandate to clean up the diocese and restore moral and financial order after years of scandal, was given a five-month counseling diversion program in lieu of criminal charges being filed against him.
Walsh has publicly apologized for his role in the Ochoa debacle and completed the counseling program this year.
The settlement amount for each victim is less than that of prior settlements for suits that came during a one-year window in 2003 that allowed civil complaints of decades-old child sex abuse to be filed.
Meadows said the amount reflects some difficulties with the cases as allegations made by some of the victims would likely have been challenged later for not being timely.
"There was a risk that some of these cases might have been thrown out," said Meadows. "Considering the legal risk involved, this was a good result."
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@press
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