Diocese of Monterey, Calif., Facing Millions in Sex-Abuse Lawsuits

By Laurie Phillips
Tribune [San Luis Obispo, California]
January 27, 2004

PISMO BEACH - Bishop Sylvester Ryan assured fellow Catholics on Monday that no money for parishes or schools would fund any payout the Diocese of Monterey might make on seven pending civil claims of sexual misconduct by its clergy.

"This has been a wrenching experience for those of us in the Catholic church," the leader of the diocese told about five dozen people gathered inside St. Paul the Apostle Church in Pismo Beach. The Diocese of Monterey includes San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

St. Paul The Apostle Church was the employer of a former priest who is alleged to have sexually abused an 11-year-old altar boy three decades ago.

The charges against the Rev. Gregory Kareta were dropped last year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a California law that erased the criminal statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases.

Ryan noted that the lawsuits against the diocese came as the result of a California law that allowed victims of suspected abuse by clergy a year -- ending on Dec. 31, 2003 -- to sue for alleged incidents years ago.

One of the cases alleges abuse at Mission San Luis Obispo in the early 1970s.

A 44-year-old man listed as "John Doe" in a lawsuit sued in March, alleging that the Rev. Orlando Battagliola sexually abused him there while he was a high school freshman. The priest served there from 1972-74 and died three years later.

The other six cases allege abuse outside San Luis Obispo County, most decades ago.

Monday night's visit to Pismo Beach was one of four Ryan is making this week to assure fellow Catholics that the diocese is doing all it can to prevent sexual abuse. It is the first such update the diocese is making in the wake of the allegations.

If the church staff members are made aware of more abuse, he said, they will promptly report it to the parishioners at the diocese's 46 parishes, including 15 in San Luis Obispo County.

Should any of the lawsuits lead to payouts, the diocese will be hit hard.

Finance Officer Tom Riordan said the diocese, formed in 1967, paid just $45,000 for a single settlement in a sexual misconduct case before it faced this set of allegations.

Now, he said, the 13 victims are collectively seeking between $39 million and $65 million.

"That's a staggering amount of money," he said. "And I can assure you, we'll receive no money from Rome to settle these cases," he added, referring to church headquarters in Vatican City.

Riordan said the diocese would draw from the resources it has, including real estate, if it had to pay out a settlement. Insurance would not cover all the costs.

An eighth case, involving alleged abuse in Salinas, was recently settled for $760,000.

That payout depleted a reserve account the diocese built up from a real estate investment.

Several of those arriving to the meeting Monday told The Tribune they came to learn more about what the church faced. They declined to give their names.

Some parishioners said they had been concerned about the sexual misconduct allegations. One woman said she was glad the bishop came to address them.

Ryan reiterated that the church has put measures in place to curb abuse, including criminal background checks and fingerprinting of employees and volunteers who work with children.

The bishop said he was glad to see such a large crowd before him, commenting that it shows they have faith in their church.

"That's a powerful thing to experience," Ryan said. "And I think it's a sign that the spirit is moving within the church."


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