Oakland Diocese Faces Barrage of Sex Abuse Lawsuits

The Mercury News [Oakland CA]
January 4, 2004

OAKLAND, Calif. - Church leaders are bracing for long legal battles as dozens of lawsuits were filed in the San Francisco Bay area last week, beating a Wednesday deadline on claims alleging decades-old molestation by priests.

"We definitely have seen a surge in the last two weeks," said Sister Barbara Flannery, the Diocese of Oakland chancellor who has worked on sexual abuse issues.

The surge of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits. Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthday, or within three years of discovering they had emotional problems linked to the molestation.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that erased the statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases. That ruling led the state to overturn convictions or drop charges against hundreds of suspects. It also left civil suits as the only recourse for alleged victims of abuse.

"They are priests whose names we already knew, but individuals who had never come forward," Flannery said. "For some, I'm sure it's about money. For others, I'm sure it's to recoup losses for years of therapy they've had to pay. Some have been in therapy for 20 years. So just cost that out."

The diocese, which covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties, paid $1.4 million to settle five cases last year. Dozens more await.

The exact number is unknown. Almost all the recent lawsuits were filed by unidentified John Does.

Among the suits are more against Robert Ponciroli, a former priest in Antioch who was extradited last year from Florida to face criminal charges he molested altar boys in the 1970s and 1980s, according to plaintiffs' lawyer Rick Simon. There's also another involving Robert Freitas, a former Fremont priest who agreed to pay $16 million to a man he allegedly molested in 1979; and several against Stephen Kiesle, a former priest in Pinole and Fremont whose alleged history of molesting children dates back 40 years.

"It's not the same as a jury saying, 'We find you guilty, and you have to spend time behind bars,'" said Terrie Light, regional director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "In a civil lawsuit, nobody's found guilty. You're just getting money. It's very different."

The Oakland Diocese recently sued its insurer for allegedly refusing to cover settlements in abuse cases.

Information from: Valley Times, Pleasanton, West County Times, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek


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