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  California Priest Cleared in Sexual Misbehavior Case, Asked to Pay $20,000 to Plaintiff

India Abroad (New York)
April 15, 2005

Though a jury awarded $20,000 to a girl whose family sued two priests, including an Indian, and the diocese of Stockton in California, attorneys for the priests and the diocese hailed the award as a victory.

The award was for 'negligent infliction of emotional distress' on a ten-year-old girl. "It was for angrily shouting at the girl when she came with a complaint," Michael D Coughlan, who appeared for Father Francis Arakal, an assistant pastor at St Josephs Parish in Modesto, said.

The lawyer points out that the verdict exonerates Arakal of sexual misbehavior, as alleged by the family. "My client has been effectively cleared. He is a good, decent man, and I believe the jury has agreed with that. I am very happy for him."

The family asked for an unspecified amount in this civil case, but got merely a token award, Coughlan said.

Of the $20,000 jury award, Father Joseph Illo is due to pay 60 percent and Arakal 40 percent. "But there is no possibility of paying the money," said Vladimir F Kosina, who represented the diocese.

Kosina was referring to a law called 'loser pays', where the party that loses a lawsuit is bound to pay legal expenses to the winner. His argument is that since the charge of sexual misconduct was not accepted by the jury, the family lost and is now due to pay legal expenses to the priests and to the diocese. "We are entitled to get all the expenses. It means we need not pay anything," Kosina said.

George MacKoul, the family's attorney, agreed that the verdict was not for sexual misbehavior. But, he told India Abroad, he intends to file a motion to reconsider the case in San Joaquin County Superior Court, which had tried the case.

"This is a split verdict. The jury did not allow any damages. Anyway, I did my duty. I have no animosity to Father Arakal or anybody," he said. He also termed the family as very courageous to file a case against the church. "Because of that, the diocese has taken many steps to prevent such things in future."

Many people showed up in court in support of Arakal, 52, a Carmelite priest who came to the diocese in 2000.

The family's lawsuit alleged that Arakal inappropriately touched the then 11 - and 13-year-old sisters at their Hughson home in July 2001.

It charged that Diocese of Stockton officials and the pastor of St Joseph's, Illo, responded improperly when one of the girls told Illo about the alleged abuse of her sister September 11, 2001.

The family complained about these incidents to the church after several months. The diocese suspended Arakal immediately and handed over the documents to the Stanislavus County District Attorney.

"But the DA could not find any evidence for misbehavior, and the criminal complaint was dropped," Coughlan said. The family then went ahead with the civil case, which contained allegations like rape.

After the criminal case was dropped, Arakal was reinstated and the diocese supported him, though he had to employ an attorney for himself.

"Father Francis was caught in the middle of a feud," Kosina said. Explaining the sequence of events, he alleged the girls' mother had problems with her husband, and developed an attachment for Illo. She even wrote love letters to him, Kosina claimed. The priest was annoyed and asked her to move away from the parish.

Arakal visited the family thrice. Defense attorneys said the family misinterpreted Arakal's actions and may be striking out due to their hurt. They pointed out that the family might have misunderstood Arakal's habits, like taking off his shoes in their home or baring his belly to show he was satiated after a meal, because he comes from a different culture.

MacKoul, said when the younger daughter told Illo about Arakal's misbehavior towards her sister, he and Arakal called her a liar. Illo and diocesan officials began a campaign to force the family out of church activities and eventually out of the parish.

The older girl, who is now 17, testified during the trial that she has suffered depression and loss of faith over the incidents. 'Priests are supposed to be the image of Christ, and to be respected, and you could trust them. Now, I don't trust people, especially priests,' she said.

 
 

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