Ruling Moves Clergy Abuse Cases out of Legal Limbo
Dioceses: Efforts to Settle the 23 Lawsuits Involving Former Inland Priests Kept Them from Going to Trial
By Michael Fisher
Press Enterprise [Riverside CA]
November 10, 2005
A judge is allowing 23 of the 140 clergy sexual-abuse lawsuits targeting the San Bernardino and San Diego Roman Catholic dioceses to move forward toward trial, ending three years of legal limbo and failed settlement talks.
The order issued late Tuesday by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz names 14 priests, including six who have worked in Inland parishes. Fromholz's order, which did not set trial dates, came a day after he issued a similar ruling allowing 43 lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to move forward.
Instead of heading for courtrooms and trials, the 850 clergy abuse cases filed in Southern California have spent years in limbo as attorneys met privately to try to reach settlements. The Diocese of Orange settled its 86 pending cases for $ 100 million last year but talks between the accusers' attorneys and the other dioceses stalled.
Fromholz's order "is a significant step forward in bringing these cases to an ultimate resolution and, hopefully, some peace of mind for our clients," said lawyer Raymond Boucher, who represents hundreds of the clergy accusers.
"Those people whose cases are involved are excited about the prospects of moving forward. For those who have cases that aren't part of the list, there is probably some disappointment," he said.
Boucher estimated that the earmarked cases could go to trial in nine to 12 months.
The order could eventually result in some Catholic leaders being questioned by attorneys and the release of some church documents.
News of Fromholz's order left Sandy Graves feeling conflicted.
The Riverside County woman is suing the San Bernardino and San Diego dioceses, alleging that Rev. Adalbert Kowalczyk sexually abused her between 1962 and 1964 when she was a child attending the Church of the Resurrection in Fontana. Kowalczyk died in 1972.
"Part of me is looking forward to just getting this done and part of me knows this is going to stir my (emotions) all up again, and I'm not looking forward to that," Graves said.
Micheal Webb, attorney for the San Diego Diocese, said Fromholz's order allows attorneys to file pleadings and motions in the 23 cases and to exchange requested documents.
"We'd like the cases to be over and behind us. Whether this will achieve that, I don't know," said Webb, who expressed doubt that any of the cases will reach trial within a year.
The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese, said the 23 lawsuits involve accusations of sexual misconduct that predate the creation of the Inland diocese, which encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The San Diego Diocese directed Inland parishes before 1978.
"We are satisfied to see the process moving forward, and we will continue to seek resolution in cases involving our diocese," Lincoln said.
23 CASES, SIX MEN
In their child-sex abuse lawsuits, the accusers accuse church officials of shuffling abusive priests among churches without warning. The 23 cases in Fromholz's order involve six former Inland priests, including Kowalczyk. The others are:
• Edward Anthony Rodrigue, who is accused in lawsuits of molesting at least 19 altar boys in the 1960s and 1970s at churches in Ontario, Barstow and elsewhere. Rodrigue, who left the priesthood in 1991, is serving a 10-year sentence in state prison, having pleaded no contest in 1998 to molesting a Highland boy.
• The Rev. Gustavo Benson, who pleaded no contest in 1987 to a misdemeanor child-molestation charge, is accused of sexually abusing three boys in San Bernardino, Barstow and Colton in the 1970s and 1980s. Benson was working at a Catholic church in Ensenada, Mexico, in 2002.
• The Rev. Franz Robier, who died in 1994 after having spent three decades at churches in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. He is accused of molesting at least four young girls in San Diego and one in San Bernardino in the 1950s.
• The Rev. Patrick O'Keeffe, who is accused in lawsuits of molesting four girls in Chino, Highland and Chula Vista in the 1950s and 1970s. He returned to his native Ireland in 2002.
• The Rev. Peter Covas, a longtime Inland priest who died in 2004. Covas, who served as principal of Notre Dame Catholic High School and pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church, both in Riverside, is accused of molesting two boys 30 years ago.
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