Belated Sex Abuse Lawsuits Pass Test
By Glenn Chapman
September 3, 2004
OAKLAND -- An Oakland judge backed the constitutional legitimacy of belated priest sex-abuse civil lawsuits Thursday in a ground-breaking ruling that set standards regarding when the church "knew or had reason to know" clerics were engaged in lewdness on the job.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw's endorsement of the state law that allows suits to be filed in 2003 against the Roman Catholic Church for alleged sexual abuses by priests decades earlier came as he set standards for cases to make it to jury trials.
Sabraw is coordinating about 160 Northern California priest sex abuse suits designated "Clergy III." The suits involve 200 plaintiffs.
Applying his newly defined criteria, Sabraw granted motions by church lawyers to block suits filed on behalf of by four "John Does" who claim to have been molested by the late Rev. Arthur Ribeiro while they were Catholic school boys at Queen of All Saints Church in Concord in the early 1960s.
The archdioceses of Oakland and San Francisco could not be deemed "on notice" that Ribeiro was a molester simply because a now-deceased housekeeper reportedly saw the boys visit the priest in his room, with the door locked and shades drawn, Sabraw concluded in his ruling.
"The evidence can support many inferences favorable to the plaintiffs, but the court cannot cross the line where inferences turn into speculation, conjecture, imagination or guesswork," Sabraw explained. "The evidence in this case fails ... concerning whether the Church Defendants were on notice because the triable issues are based on conjecture."
Even had the housekeeper known Ribeiro was abusing boys, her job didn't come with the authority or responsibility to doing anything about it, according to the ruling. Sabraw maintained the church would be deemed "on notice" if a "director, officer or managing agent" was informed of unlawful sexual conduct. Top church officials also would be on the hook if the information had reached any employee whose job includes a mandate to report such suspicions, according to Sabraw.
"We are disappointed with the result," said attorney Rick Simons, who represents the Ribeiro "Does" along with plaintiffs in 108 other priest abuse civil lawsuits bundled in the courts as "Clergy III" cases.
"We think the judge's interpretation of the evidence, and the sections of the law, is a little narrower than what the legislation intended," he said.
Sabraw is setting precedents in application of the new law, making it inevitable rulings will be challenged in higher courts. Simons said Thursday he plans to ask the State Court of Appeal to review the judge's decision slamming the door on the Ribeiro cases.
"This was an important case to bring before the court so a judge can figure out where to draw the line regarding who is able to go forward and who isn't," Simons said, referring to the Ribeiro cases as among the most dated and most circumstantial.
"You have to appreciate, no matter what side you are on, how hard Judge Sabraw has worked and how much opportunity he has given everyone to present evidence and argument," said Simons.
The state judge's rulings have the potential to dictate what percentage of the suits against dioceses in Oakland and elsewhere qualify for trial by jury, said Simons, the lawyer coordinating the Clergy III litigation. Hundreds of similar suits in Los Angeles and San Diego counties have been categorized in the courts as Clergy I and Clergy II
Sabraw went on to rule that the Roman Catholic Bishop of Oakland and Franciscan Friars of California, both defendants in suits, can't be held directly accountable for sexual battery under the theory they were vicariously liable for abuses committed by clergy in their ranks.
"The negligent or reckless assignment or supervision of church personnel by the Bishop of Oakland does not transform unlawful sexual conduct by those persons into an expected job function," Sabraw concluded, noting the bishop remained open to findings of "outrageous conduct with reckless disregard" that resulted in the infliction of emotional distress.
Sabraw also set rules for a yet-to-be-scheduled 6-hour maximum deposition of Cardinal Roger Mahoney who was the Stockton bishop from April 1980 through September 1985. The judge also addressed the potential of issuing protective orders for some witnesses.
Sabraw scheduled the next Clergy III hearing in his court for Oct. 13.
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