|Lawsuit against Diocese, Priest Seeks Millions in Damages
By Elizabeth Larson
Lake County News
June 6, 2008
LAKEPORT – A Tracy man has filed a civil lawsuit against the Diocese of Santa Rosa and a local priest, seeking millions of dollars for damages he alleges he suffered due to sexual abuse.
Christopher Griego, 31, of Tracy filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court on Jan. 2 in which he alleged he was sexually abused as a child. However, in that initial filing he did not specifically name anyone, referring only to a "John Doe," according to court documents.
On May 5, his attorney – Richard Simons of Hayward – filed an amended complaint naming the diocese and Lakeport priest Father Ted Oswald.
The diocese's attorney, Dan Galvin of Santa Rosa, said Griego is seeking just over $2.5 million in total damages – from psychological and emotional damages, to current and future medical expenses and earnings losses.
Galvin said the complaint was just recently served on the diocese, which plans to file a response.
Griego's suit alleges he was the victim of sexual abuse from 1988 to 1995 – during which time he was a Lakeport parishioner and an altar boy – and that the diocese failed to protect him.
The amended complaint states that in 2006 Griego discovered that his "psychological injuries and illnesses" resulted from childhood sexual abuse, but his allegations do not include specific incidents.
A number listed in the phone book for Griego was not in service. Simons didn't return a call seeking comment on Thursday.
Court records show the case is set to have a hearing on Aug. 14.
On Sunday, at the end of morning mass at Saint Mary Immaculate Church in Lakeport, Oswald told his parish about the accusations and said he would be taking a leave of absence, as Lake County News has reported.
Dierdre Frontczak, the diocese's spokesperson, said Oswald was placed on administrative leave as of Monday, which is standard procedure when such an allegation is made.
Oswald requested, and was granted, administrative leaves of absence from his chaplain posts at the Lakeport Police Department and the Lake County Sheriff's Office, officials in those agencies confirmed.
Saint Mary Immaculate's priest since 1988, Oswald told Lake County News this week that he is innocent and that he wants his day in civil court to resolve the matter. He said he hopes to return to his parish and go back to work.
Oswald also has reported that parishioners and friends continue to offer their support and encouragement.
Galvin said cases such as this typically come down to the alleged victim's word versus that of the alleged perpetrator.
"In this situation, the plaintiff claims he was sexually abused," said Galvin. "The priest denies vehemently it ever happened."
He added, "Credibility is, typically, the key in these cases."
How long the case could take to resolve is hard to say, said Galvin. Civil discovery will look into the background of the individuals involved, and depositions could take months to complete.
Many such cases end up in mediation before they get to trial, Galvin said.
It's also not guaranteed that the case will make it through. "We have had several of these cases thrown out by the trial court based on statute of limitations defenses," Galvin said.
However, Galvin will be up against a tough opponent in Simons.
The biography listed for him on the Web site for his firm – Furtado, Jaspovice and Simons – reports he has extensive experience representing clients who bring sexual abuse cases. He was co-counsel for more than 125 victims in Northern California cases where child sex abuse was alleged against priests or other clergy, and assisted in bringing in more than $150 million in settlements and awards.
Griego never reported his abuse allegations to the Lakeport Police Department, officials there confirmed this week. Lakeport Police has asked the District Attorney's Office to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations, which is in progress.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, based in St. Louis, said he didn't consider it unusual for Griego's case to have begun in the civil courts and not the criminal system.
People alleged to have been abused by an authority figure are likely to distrust other authority figures – such as police and other law enforcement, according to Clohessy, who said he is an abuse victim.
When cases such as this go through the civil process, Galvin asserted that the plaintiffs are looking for money.
Clohessy acknowledged that there have been some false accusations made against clergy members – with money a motivation for some – but said if a person's goal is to scam the court system, sexual abuse is the wrong claim to make, because church officials hire defense attorneys who "fight brutally and ruthlessly" to beat the cases in court.
Frontczak said Oswald went before the diocese's review board, where he maintained his innocence and denied Griego's allegations.
The review board assists in investigating initial reports and accusations against clergy, said Frontczak.
Griego also has been invited to the board, but Frontczak said she doesn't know if he will appear. Very often individuals bringing abuse allegations don't want to meet with the board, she added.
Clohessy said his group urges people making abuse allegations to think "long and hard" before going to church authorities, because the group believes the church will not act in the victims' best interest.
He said he finds it troubling that, in cases like Oswald's, people rally to a clergy member's cause rather than waiting to see what will be determined in court.
That reaction by church and community members, he maintained, will discourage other alleged abuse victims from coming forward.
E-mail Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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