$6 Million Verdict for 4 Victims in Church Trial
3 Men, 1 Woman Get Roughly $1.5 Million Each for Years of Abuse by San Jose Priest
By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
April 21, 2005
A San Francisco jury awarded nearly $6 million Wednesday to three men and a woman who were molested as children by a Roman Catholic priest in San Jose in the 1970s, the largest verdict so far in the latest round of molestation suits against the church in Northern California.
The Superior Court jury issued a unanimous verdict after nearly three days of deliberations in which some jurors favored much higher damage awards, according to two jurors who spoke to reporters. Three of the plaintiffs' attorneys had asked for damages totaling $15.5 million, while a lawyer for the San Francisco Archdiocese called for no more than $1 million for the four plaintiffs. The church did not deny the molestations or dispute its responsibility for them.
"I think it's very fair," said plaintiff John Salberg, who broke down in tears when his $1.58 million verdict was announced. Afterward, Salberg said, he hugged John Wester, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, and the church's lawyer, James Goodman.
"I love being Catholic," said Salberg, 40, a San Jose high school teacher. He testified that he had been molested about 700 times by the Rev. Joseph Pritchard over a seven-year period at St. Martin of Tours church in San Jose, starting when he was a second-grader.
"I love my church," Salberg said. "I wasn't out to destroy them."
"It's not about the money," said plaintiff Kenneth Archambault, 40, of Newman (Stanislaus County), who was awarded $1.581 million, the largest of the verdicts. "The church needs to change their ways."
Wester also called the verdict fair and praised the plaintiffs for their courage. "We've always wanted just compensation," he said. "I really pray that this brings closure for the plaintiffs."
The archdiocese has liability insurance but hasn't said how much of the damages are covered. "The national experience to date has been that the diocese involved pays the largest portion," said archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy.
Robert Tobin, attorney for a Sacramento man who sued as John Doe and was awarded $1.323 million, said the verdicts should encourage church officials to talk with their insurers and work out settlements that would avoid more trials. Tobin said the cases decided Wednesday were typical of the approximately 150 that have been filed against Catholic dioceses in Northern California.
The suit were filed under a 2002 state law that temporarily suspended the legal deadline for suing churches and other institutions for molestations by employees.
Another San Francisco jury awarded $437,000 on March 24 to Dennis Kavanaugh, who was an altar boy at St. Martin of Tours when Pritchard molested him in the early 1970s. Last week, a jury in Hayward awarded about $2 million to two brothers who were molested by another priest at an Antioch church in the 1980s. The men had sued the Oakland Diocese.
Pritchard died in 1988. Nearly two dozen people have since come forward to describe how he had given candy and sodas to them when they were young, then fondled them under their clothes and sometimes masturbated them. Eighteen suits involving alleged molestations by Pritchard are still pending.
The plaintiffs in the latest trial said that boys had watched other boys being molested and that three other priests had viewed some of the incidents. The church disputed only the plaintiffs' claims that the molestations were a substantial factor in the plaintiffs' continuing personal problems. The sole issue before the jury was the amount of damages, mostly for psychological trauma.
Archambault, for example, testified that after being molested for two to three years, he had started using drugs and alcohol in the fifth grade, continued until 2002, had been hospitalized twice, had been homeless at times and still needed therapy. He also said he had lost his religious faith at an early age.
Goodman, the archdiocese's attorney, agreed that Archambault was suffering from trauma, but told jurors that other witnesses had contradicted Archambault's claim that Pritchard was largely responsible.
Goodman also said the female plaintiff, who sued as Jane Doe, had suffered violence from family members that was more likely the cause of her later problems than the two years of molestation she endured from Pritchard. Goodman suggested damages for her of no more than $100,000, but the jury awarded her $1.47 million.
A three-fourths vote on the 12-member jury was needed for a verdict, but jurors told reporters they had negotiated the unanimous agreement.
"A lot of us wish we could have done more," said juror Kate Atkinson. While some jurors favored much higher damages, she said, a minority "thought the plaintiffs were jumping on the bandwagon."
Another juror, Kristoffer Branco, said some jurors hadn't believed the plaintiffs at all, while one juror had proposed individual damages as high as $10 million. Branco said he had wanted to award $3 million to each plaintiff, because "we're talking about children, defenseless kids and a priest who was supposed to be a watcher, a helper."
The damage awards were about average for such cases nationwide, and well below the $10 million-plus individual verdicts issued in the 1990s by juries in Stockton and Dallas, said David Clohessy of St. Louis, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"So many have been so severely and so needlessly hurt by Pritchard and other San Francisco Catholic predators," he said. "We hope they will find some consolation and closure in this jury verdict."
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