|Court of Appeal Revives Sex Abuse Suit against Fresno Diocese
Justices Cite Mahony Testimony, Say Housekeeper's Observation May Have Placed Officials on Notice
By Kenneth Ofgang
May 22, 2008
A lawsuit charging that officials of the Fresno Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church were on notice that a parish priest was molesting young boys was reinstated yesterday by this district's Court of Appeal.
In a 2-1 decision, the court held that while there is no direct evidence the officials knew of any molestations taking place at the church rectory in the Kern County community of Wasco, a triable issue exists as to whether such knowledge may be imputed to them based on the observations of a part-time parish employee.
The action was brought by George and Howard Santillan, brothers who claim they were abused by the priest in the Wasco parish between 1959 and 1973. They apparently did not tell each other or anyone else of the abuse until the 1980s, by which time the statute of limitations had expired.
They sued in 2003, however, under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1(c). The statute, which applies only to actions brought that year, revives time-barred claims against persons or entities for breach of a legal duty to protect children from sexual abuse if the defendant had notice that abuse had taken place and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it from recurring.
The suit was brought in Sonoma Superior Court and assigned to Alameda Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw, along with other coordinated actions from around Northern California.
The plaintiffs claim that the abuse took place behind closed doors, in Msgr. Anthony Herdegen's bedroom at the rectory. They also charge that Herdegen's housekeeper, Barbara Zeilman, either knew what was happening or should have known, since she let the boys into the rectory knew they were often alone with the priest in his room.
The plaintiffs' mother said she confronted Zeilman, who died before the suit was filed, in 1987 and that the elderly woman did not answer the allegations directly but just cried. The mother was Zeilman's hairdresser, both before and after the alleged confrontation, and repeatedly told the mother "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the mother asserted, although she never gave details.
The plaintiffs took the deposition of Cardinal Roger Mahony, now the archbishop of Los Angeles, who was an official of the Fresno Diocese for much of the 1960s and 1970s.
He testified that during the period in question, a priest's practice of taking boys into his bedroom and closing the door would have raised "grounds for....suspicion" of sexual misconduct and that "if there was [a] well-founded suspicion of some problem, I would expect [the housekeeper] would have told somebody."
Knowledge Not Imputed
Sabraw granted the diocese's motion for summary judgment, reasoning that while Zeilman may have had actual or constructive knowledge of the abuse, such knowledge could not be imputed to the diocese for purposes of Sec. 340.1(c) because she was a low-level employee and there was no evidence that her job duties included reporting such abuse.
Justice Laurence Rubin, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed, saying the existence of such a duty may be inferred from Mahony's testimony.
While that testimony was ambiguous, the justice wrote:
"Mahony was asked whether he would have expected Zielman to report any suspicions to a "higher level official." Seen in that light, his response that he would have expected her to tell "somebody" could be taken as a reference to somebody who was a higher level official of the Diocese. As for his expectation that Zielman would report any suspicions of sexual abuse to such a person, it is important to note that Mahony held various high level positions at the Diocese while much of the alleged abuse occurred. Viewed in that light, an inference could be drawn that his expectation was based on his knowledge of the duties of parish employees such as Zielman."
Justice Madeleine Flier concurred, but Presiding Justice Candace Cooper dissented.
Cooper cited literature stating that the vast majority of child sexual abuse went unreported during the years in question, causing the Legislature to tighten laws requiring certain persons to report abuse on pain of prosecution.
"Given the fact that the State of California found it necessary to impose criminal sanctions for failure to report suspected abuse by professionals in fields where the moral imperative to protect children was already extant within the obligations of the profession," Cooper wrote, "I find it difficult to rely on the slender thread of Mahoney's "expectation" that a part-time housekeeper would report suspected abuse to provide the factual foundation to proceed with this litigation."
The case is Santillan v. Roman Catholic Bishop of Fresno, 08 S.O.S. 2977.
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