Judge Takes Defense Claims under Advisement in Lawsuit against Priest

By Bob Campbell
Midland Reporter-Telegram
December 17, 2005

Hearing attorneys' pre-trial arguments Friday in a lawsuit alleging the sexual abuse of a boy by his priest, District Judge George Gilles took the case under advisement and said he will make a ruling on whether it may proceed either next week or in early January.

Defense lawyers Don Griffis of San Angelo and Bill Clifton of Midland invoked a two-year statute of limitations they said expired in September last year with the now 22-year-old alleged victim having first made the allegations public at the Odessa Rape Crisis Center Sept. 19, 2002.

Representing the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Griffis said neither the diocese nor the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Texas, the priestly order of the Rev. Domingo Gonzalez Estrada, should be liable even if the priest did molest the boy six times between 1989 and 1994.

"Any such acts would have been a deviation from his employment and purely personal to him," said Griffis. "The duty of a priest is to reflect God's love and not his own sinful desires.

"Bishop Michael Pfeifer had no reason to believe that Father Estrada was a pedophile."

Clifton contended the Missionary Oblates had no supervisory authority over Estrada, now 64 and living in San Antonio.

The alleged victim was at the hearing with 20 other spectators, but neither Estrada nor his attorney, Leslie Mclaughlin of Midland, attended. The lawsuit claims sexual abuse by Estrada and "negligence and fraudulent concealment" by the diocese and priestly order.

Unspecified damages are sought.

Plaintiff's attorney Lori Watson of Dallas argued in favor of a five-year time limit during the 75-minute proceeding, which will have been preparatory to a trial if Gilles denies defense motions to dismiss the claims.

Having previously sued a number of other priests and dioceses in similar cases, Watson said, she claimed relevance of a law the Texas Legislature in 1995 to set a five-year limit starting with the victim's 18th birthday in aggravated cases.

She said the alleged Midland victim reported Estrada had molested him to a number of people, including other priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe, before September 2002 and his mother formally told diocesan officials in 1989. "They were on notice from 1989 that there was a problem with this priest, Estrada," Watson said.

"They should have acted on it and stopped this abuse. The Oblates had control over this particular priest to remove him from serving in any diocese anywhere."

Bishop Pfeifer issued a statement from San Angelo Friday, saying he "was particularly disturbed by the allegations that I, as bishop, somehow knew Father Estrada was supposedly a pedophile but that I either ignored this information or concealed it.

"I have stated previously and I repeat today that I never had nor have such knowledge."

Pfeifer noted Estrada was criminally tried for the same allegations in Midland in December 2004 and was acquitted on all counts. "This same plaintiff had testified under oath in the criminal trial that he was not seeking any monetary award while, in fact, evidence was shown that his attorney had already sent a 'demand letter' to Archbishop Patrick Flores precisely seeking to 'settle all claims,'" the bishop said.

"I believe this suit against the Diocese of San Angelo is totally without merit."


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