Clergy-Abuse Lawsuits Pile up
Courts: Dozens of New Actions Name Clerics Who Served in the Inland Area or San Diego County
By Michael Fisher
Press Enterprise [Riverside CA]
January 1, 2004
Faced with a New Year's Eve deadline, hundreds of people who say they were molested by Roman Catholic priests in past decades have filed a flurry of lawsuits across Southern California. Dozens of cases name clerics who have served in San Bernardino, Riverside or San Diego counties.
Since last week, Los Angeles attorney Anthony De Marco said his office filed more than 200 new lawsuits alleging clergy abuse, some naming multiple priests and victims. He estimated more than 40 complaints target the Diocese of San Bernardino, the Diocese of San Diego or both.
"This was certainly a major rush," said De Marco, part of a group of lawyers overseeing 316 clergy-abuse lawsuits statewide. Attorneys were trying to beat Wednesday's deadline in a state law that had temporarily suspended the statute of limitations to allow molestation victims to sue their abusers' employers.
The avalanche of lawsuits did not surprise leaders of the million-member Diocese of San Bernardino, said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, the diocese's spokesman.
"The plaintiffs' attorneys have told us all year that they were going to do this," said Lincoln, who serves the diocese encompassing Riverside and San Bernardino counties. "The suspension of the statute of limitations has expired but our outreach to victims with counseling and assistance will continue. We are in the business of healing."
Lincoln said he could not specifically discuss any of the new lawsuits, which have not yet been seen by diocesan lawyers.
Some of the new lawsuits name both dioceses because the San Diego Diocese managed the Inland Catholic parishes before the San Bernardino diocese was created in November 1978. Rodrigo Valdivia, chancellor of the San Diego Diocese, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
De Marco said the expiring state law gave victims of decades-old abuse a one-year window to sue, or to re-file cases previously dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
"It doesn't allow the dioceses a free pass just because they were able to cover up the abuse for so long," De Marco said of the law.
'STRATEGIC WAY OF FILING'
But a legal expert said the mass, end-of-the-year filings were more about courthouse tactics.
"I think they were filed more as a strategic way of filing in a way that there's strength in numbers, that this was a pattern of behavior," said Laurie L. Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "The impact is to send a message that this is not an isolated incident."
Levenson said even if victims' attorneys don't expect to win all the cases, they know the wave of filings will grab the attention of not only the church leadership, but also the public and the media.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge will hear all of the Southern California civil lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.
Copies of five of the new lawsuits obtained by The Press-Enterprise name a handful of priests. But at least one of the hastily drafted complaints filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court is convoluted and contradictory, leveling accusations at a priest but then identifying the cleric by another name elsewhere in the documents.
In one lawsuit, two men accuse the Rev. Gustavo Benson of molesting them at a San Bernardino church. Benson, who was convicted of sexual molestation in 1987, was transferred to a church in Ensenada, Mexico, where he was working in May 2002.
His status was unclear Wednesday and he could not be located for comment.
Another lawsuit names the Rev. Peter Covas, a longtime Inland priest, now retired, who was the subject of a yearlong investigation after two men accused him of sexually abusing them as boys three decades ago. One of the men later recanted, and prosecutors in San Bernardino County said earlier this year that they would not charge Covas.
Phone messages left Wednesday afternoon for Covas and his previous attorney were not returned.
In the new lawsuit, a man accuses Covas of molesting him between 1975 and 1980 at churches in San Bernardino, Beaumont and Riverside.
SUITS CLAIM 1958 ABUSE
In two of the new lawsuits, a pair of women accuse the Monsignor Patrick O'Keeffe of molesting them at a Chula Vista church in San Diego County in 1958. O'Keeffe is already targeted in a lawsuit by a woman who claims he fondled her in 1990 when she was a 14-year-old student at St. Margaret Mary School in Chino.
O'Keeffe could not be reached for comment. He returned to his native Ireland in mid-2002, just weeks before prosecutors charged him with molesting a 17-year-old girl in 1972 at St.
Adelaide Church in Highland. A U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding statute of limitations forced prosecutors to drop the charges later.
The San Bernardino Diocese paid its largest settlement ever - $ 2.1 million - earlier this year as part of a $ 4.2 million deal to end a lawsuit brought by two brothers who alleged they were sexually abused in the mid-1970s by a former San Bernardino priest, Edward Ball, a convicted molester. The diocese is named in more than 10 other pending cases.
Staff writers Michelle DeArmond and Douglas Quan contributed to this report.
A California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifted for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits.
Attorneys predict that up to 750 people will sue statewide. As of mid-December, a survey found at least 670 plaintiffs had filed or were about to file cases.
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