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  San Jose Diocese Sued over Alleged Molestation in '70s

By Maya Suryaraman
San Jose Mercury News [California]
August 7, 2002

Two men who say they were molested in the 1970s by a former pastor at St. Martin of Tours Church in San Jose sued local Roman Catholic Church officials Tuesday for failing to stop the alleged abuse.

The lawsuit, which does not ask for a specific amount in damages, is believed to be the first filed against the San Jose diocese alleging that a priest molested a child.

In the suit, the two men, who are not identified, allege that local Catholic officials knew that the Rev. Joseph T. Pritchard was abusing boys who attended St. Martin's church school.

"We can prove they were notified in writing in the mid-'70s of his acts but did nothing to prevent his further molestation of children," said Laurence Drivon, the men's lawyer. Drivon announced the lawsuit at a press conference outside the diocese office in Santa Clara.

Pritchard, who was from a prominent Santa Clara family and who died in 1988, was a popular priest who served at St. Martin from 1972 until he was transferred to a Los Altos church in 1978.

Drivon said the two men who filed suit are among 16 who told the Mercury News in April that Pritchard repeatedly fondled them after school, often in his living room, where he invited them to watch television and play games.

Drivon, who has handled several sexual-abuse cases against the Catholic Church, filed a similar lawsuit in Sacramento on Monday. He also said he expected to file one in San Francisco and another in Oakland this week.

New state law

The lawsuits will be among the first to take advantage of a new state law passed in response to the Catholic Church's sex scandal that gives victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue.

Under the law, if church officials knew about a priest's sexual misconduct and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it, plaintiffs can file suit for one year, starting in January 2003, regardless of when the abuse happened. Drivon said his clients are filing now to get a jump on the process.

Several other states, including New York and Florida, have passed or are considering laws that would extend the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse against minors.

Drivon said he believes that a letter written by the father of a former St. Martin student will help prove the San Jose case. That father told the Mercury News that he complained in writing to church officials in 1977, after learning that Pritchard had molested his son. At the time, San Jose was still part of the San Francisco archdiocese.

The lawsuit, however, was filed against the San Jose diocese, Bishop Patrick McGrath and St. Martin, although it does not specifically name them as defendants.

San Jose became a separate diocese in 1981.

Roberta Ward, a spokeswoman for the San Jose diocese, said church officials had no comment on the lawsuit because they had not seen the suit and did not yet know the names of the plaintiffs.

However, Ward said San Jose diocese officials are not aware of any written complaints against Pritchard received in the 1970s. After the 16 men came forward earlier this year, McGrath ordered an exhaustive search of church records, but nothing turned up, Ward said.

"Our bishop had the files turned inside and out and there is no paper trail," Ward said.

Ward said the diocese first learned of the allegations against Pritchard when one of the 16 men, John Salberg, contacted the diocese two years ago. He was offered counseling and was urged to ask his friends to come forward.

Salberg said he was not surprised that two of his former classmates had chosen to sue.

"It was a time bomb waiting to explode," said Salberg, a 37-year-old sports-equipment dealer. "I told a number of people, 'Don't be surprised if someone becomes angry and frustrated enough to do this.' " Salberg said frustration over the diocese's response has been building among some of the men who came forward with him in April.

Church's response

At the urging of Salberg and others, McGrath sent out a letter earlier this year to all former students who attended the St. Martin of Tours parish school during the 1970s, inviting any victims to contact church officials. McGrath also personally apologized to four men who said they were molested by Pritchard, and formed a committee to give him recommendations on strengthening the diocese's response to allegations of sexual misconduct.

But Salberg said some of his former classmates are not convinced the committee will take forceful action and had wanted to see more victims named to the committee.

"Being a victim, you don't think anything's been done," said Salberg, who sits on the committee.

 
 

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