Trial starts Monday in Yakima clergy sex abuse case
By Jane Gargas
March 9, 2014
YAKIMA, Wash. — For the first time, the Catholic Diocese of Yakima is going to trial over a case of alleged clergy sexual abuse.
A man, referred to as John Doe in court documents, is suing for more than $3 million, alleging that when he was 17 he was repeatedly raped one night in 1999 by a man studying to become a priest in the Yakima Diocese.
The teenager subsequently told police, but they were unable to locate the aspiring priest, called a deacon. They learned later he had left his Zillah church the day after the alleged incident and traveled to Wenatchee. A day after that, he fled to Mexico. To the authorities’ knowledge, he has never returned to the United States.
A non-jury trial before Judge Edward Shea is scheduled to start Monday in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
Doe is represented by attorneys with Tamaki Law, a Yakima law firm that has won settlements in a number of lawsuits against the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, the firm reached a proposed $15 million settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena, Mont., on behalf of 362 people who claimed they had been sexually abused by clergy members in a series of cases dating to the 1940s.
Doe’s attorneys argue that the deacon was under the Yakima Diocese’s supervision and used his position and authority to molest the teenager. They maintain the diocese knew or should have known that Deacon Aarón Ramírez had a propensity to molest children.
His attorneys say there’s no proof the diocese investigated the deacon’s background before hiring him; that he wasn’t properly supervised; and that the diocese did nothing to bring Ramírez back to be questioned by authorities.
Further, they say, that because of the diocese’s negligence, Doe continues to suffer physical, emotional and psychological distress.
As part of the lawsuit, Doe is asking for up to $136,000 to cover costs for future inpatient treatment and counseling expenses and the additional $3 million for noneconomic damages.
The diocese contends that the version of events given by Doe, who now lives in the Portland area, is not an accurate account of that evening.
There is a considerable disagreement over what transpired that evening and when the evidence is heard in court there will be a different understanding of what happened, said Ted Buck, the Seattle attorney representing the diocese.
The diocese also argues that the statute of limitations has expired for any lawsuit to be valid.
And it says that under the concept of separation of church and state, the government cannot interfere with the employment practices of the church.
Based on court documents, here’s Doe’s version of the event 15 years ago:
Ramírez, 35, invited Doe, who attended Zillah’s Resurrection Catholic Church, to come over one evening for a guitar lesson in a trailer on the church grounds, where the deacon was temporarily living. He gave the teen bottles of Budweiser and a bottle of wine and when they finished drinking those, he brought over more wine from the church, Doe reported in a subsequent report to police.
Nauseous, the teen passed out on the porch of the trailer. He said he remembers the deacon dragging him back inside the trailer and performing oral and anal sex on him. He said he felt paralyzed and wanted to scream but couldn’t.
According to his account, he woke up several hours later without clothes, lying next to the deacon, also naked, in bed. While the deacon slept, he dressed, went home and contacted the police.
Although he reported the incident to police, he said he couldn’t remember what had happened. He was unable to make an official statement due to his “significant emotional state,” according to the police report.
The police were never able to obtain a complete statement, so charges were never filed.
Court documents state that when then-Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla was notified that police were looking for Ramírez, he telephoned the deacon, who had traveled to St. Joseph’s parish in Wenatchee.
In a deposition taken in October 2012, Sevilla said the deacon admitted he’d had “inappropriate sexual contact” with Doe.
Sevilla told the deacon to remain at the parish and a priest would drive there the next day and return him to Zillah for police questioning.
But when the Yakima priest arrived, Ramírez had vanished and was on his way to Mexico.
Since the teen wouldn’t press charges, there was no further police investigation.
Court records filed in the case show that contact between the diocese and Ramírez didn’t end there.
Sevilla remained in contact with Ramírez by telephone and email over the next several years. In his deposition, Sevilla said he told Ramírez several times that if he returned to the United States, he would be arrested. Sevilla explained in his deposition that he didn’t want to get Ramírez arrested because he thought Ramírez didn’t want to be arrested.
Sevilla said in his deposition that he repeatedly told Ramírez it would be better if he did not return to the United States
Sevilla also reached out to Doe and his family and met with them at least once and offered them counseling.
Before retiring in 2011 and becoming Bishop Emeritus for the diocese, Sevilla took several trips to Mexico. According to his deposition, he met with Ramírez at least twice and offered up to $600 for counseling.
When Ramírez first arrived in Mexico, he applied for jobs at various parishes but initially had no luck getting hired. In his deposition, Sevilla said he suggested to Ramírez that he continue to look for work in the ministry. But Sevilla also said in his deposition that he made the suggestion because he didn’t think any bishops would accept Ramírez.
Sevilla said he didn’t notify any bishops in Mexico about the reasons for Ramírez’s departure from the United States. Instead, he told Ramírez to advise church clerics where he was applying that he was wanted for questioning in the United States.
Eventually, Ramírez told Sevilla he had obtained a job teaching at a school. Sevilla said he didn’t attempt to contact anyone at the school or find out where it was.
Two years after the Zillah incident, Ramírez was laicized (removed from Catholic clergy) by mutual agreement between him and the diocese.
He then became an Episcopal priest, working at a parish outside Mexico City.
Former Yakima resident Robert Fontana, who was working for the Yakima Diocese at the time, discovered Ramírez’s whereabouts in 2006. He learned of a Texas newspaper story about priests accused of crimes in the states who later found church employment in Mexico. Fontana subsequently sent the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mexico a copy of the Zillah police report; the bishop then permanently suspended Ramírez, and there has been no official sighting of him since.
Before coming to the United States from Mexico in 1998, Ramírez studied at two Catholic religious orders. Court records show that no recommendations or documentation from those orders could be found in Ramírez’s personnel file at the Yakima Diocese.
In preparation for the trial, Monsignor Robert Siler, chancellor of the diocese, wrote in November 2011 to one of the seminaries where Ramírez had studied in Mexico, asking for copies of the recommendation he assumed had been requested by the Yakima Diocese. That was common practice before a candidate was accepted as a deacon, Siler said in the court record.
A priest at the seminary replied that they had no record of a request by the Yakima Diocese for Ramírez’s recommendations. He added that they would not have sent a recommendation because “the brother (Ramírez) was recommended to leave our institute. ... A petition expressed by his mentor says ‘in case of attempting to enter in any other seminary, I would inform negatively.’”
Attorneys estimate the trial could last five to eight days. Doe’s attorney, Bryan Smith, argues that the diocese did not safeguard his client from being abused.
“There is a duty to protect,” Smith said in a telephone interview. “Was it breached either in hiring or supervising?”
Buck, the Seattle attorney representing the diocese, said. “There is a significant amount of dispute over what really happened, and how it came about on the night of the incident. Once evidence is heard, we think there will be a different understanding of what happened that night.”