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  Diocese to Settle Claims
Sex-Abuse Survivors to Be Paid $56 Million, Ending 3 Years of Litigation

By Dana Hull
San Jose Mercury News
August 6, 2005

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland has agreed to settle all claims of sexual misconduct in which the diocese has been named a defendant.

The $56 million settlement — divvied up among 56 survivors of sexual abuse — ends three years of litigation. The Friday announcement is remarkable because each individual case was negotiated separately — a process that took months of back and forth among the diocese, its attorneys, insurance companies, and lawyers for scores of abuse victims.

"It is my heartfelt hope that reaching this resolution will help victim-survivors move forward ever more securely along the path of healing," said Bishop Allen H. Vigneron. "I, together with all the priests of the Roman Catholic community in the East Bay, will, in the months and years ahead, do whatever is in our power to be of assistance in this regard."

The average $1 million payout to each victim roughly parallels settlements granted in other clergy-abuse cases in the Bay Area in recent months, notably those in San Francisco and San Jose, which was part of the San Francisco archdiocese until 25 years ago. The Oakland diocese encompasses all Roman Catholic parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

The global settlement in Oakland covers some of the most notorious abuse cases to hit the East Bay. Included are the claims of two brothers who were molested by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli when they were altar boys at St. Ignatius parish in Antioch, as well as four cases involving former Fremont priest Stephen Kiesle.

"These wounds run extremely deep, and they will never go away," said Bob Thatcher, 35, who was molested by Ponciroli more than 20 years ago. "But at least we've been heard, and we can now move on with our lives in a different way."

Thatcher, who grew up in Antioch and now lives outside of Phoenix, said that the settlement was in large part an admission of guilt on the part of the diocese. Money aside, the act of settling has helped him to partially curb his ongoing anger and rage.

He also commended the scores of other abuse survivors — many of whom have not been named publicly — for having the courage to come forward and tell their stories.

"The book is not written on any of our lives, but some chapter of it can close," said Thatcher. "I've gotten back in touch with a 10-year-old child who I haven't talked to in 25 years."

News of the settlement broke late Friday, when attorneys for abuse victims sent out a press release. The Diocese of Oakland did not return numerous phone calls.

"This news is a great relief to those Catholic children who silently suffered for years with the pain and harm of sexual abuse by their priest," said Hayward attorney Rick Simons, the lead counsel in the string of Northern California cases that came to be known as "Clergy III." "They can now know with certainty their families, the public, and their church believe the unspeakable did occur."

Steve McFeeley, an attorney for the diocese, said that the church's insurance paid for more than half of the $56 million settlement. He also credited Alameda County Superior Court Judge David Hunter with keeping negotiations on track.

"He worked so well and so hard on this for months," said McFeeley. "We could not have done it without him."

The Oakland diocese includes 86 parishes and 510,000 members. Diocese officials admitted in a jury trial last spring that at least two dozen East Bay priests were guilty of acts of child molestation.

When the sex-abuse scandals rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Boston five years ago and then spread across the country, the Oakland Diocese actively reached out to abuse victims, starting a Ministry for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse and earning a reputation among survivors as being one of the more progressive dioceses in the country.

In recent months, numerous clergy-abuse cases have been settled in advance of scheduled jury trials.

In July, the San Francisco archdiocese agreed to pay more than $16 million to 12 men who were molested in the 1970s by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard, a popular priest at St. Martin of Tours parish in San Jose.

In June, the archdiocese agreed to pay more than $21 million to 15 people who were sexually molested by Bay Area priests — including two popular San Jose pastors and an expert on church law who once advised American bishops on how to handle claims of sexual abuse.

 
 

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