In Rare Turn, Inland Priest Is Suing Accuser - for Slander
By Michael Fisher
The Press-Enterprise [California]
February 14, 2005
Saying he was falsely accused of molestation, an Inland priest is suing his accuser for slander in one of just a handful of defamation lawsuits to be filed nationwide since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church more than two years ago.
The lawsuit by the Rev. Michael Bucaro targets a 26-year-old man who sued the priest and the San Bernardino Diocese in October, alleging that Bucaro molested him during the 1980s at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Corona. The slander lawsuit, blasted by victims' advocates as an intimidation tactic, is believed to be the first filed by an Inland priest in more than a decade.
"It is uncommon for a priest to fight back, but when they are falsely accused and their reputation is being harmed, it is quite appropriate," said Bucaro's attorney, David Hershorin. He called the accuser's lawsuit "an attempt to get money, plain and simple."
Bucaro claims that in 2004, his accuser falsely told his mother that he had been sexually molested as a child for several years by the priest. Those accusations exposed Bucaro to "hatred, humiliation, contempt, (and) ridicule," according to his lawsuit.
Anthony De Marco, attorney for Bucaro's accuser, said the lawsuit appears to have been filed "purely in response to our client exercising his legal rights."
"They are suing our client because he told his mother about what happened to him. I think most people would find that pretty offensive and pretty harassing," De Marco said.
The slander suit seeks an unspecified amount in damages. It does not name the Diocese of San Bernardino, where officials said they were unaware of the case.
"This is an independent action by Father Bucaro, who is understandably concerned for his reputation," said the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the million-member diocese encompassing Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Bucaro's accuser is currently serving a two-year sentence at Wasco State Prison in central California on charges of vehicle theft and burglary, according to the California Department of Corrections.
De Marco said studies show that children who have been molested are more predisposed to commit crimes, to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse and to have problems maintaining relationships.
The Press-Enterprise generally does not publish the names of victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse.
The 52-year-old Bucaro could not be reached for comment Monday.
Bucaro's lawsuit came about three months after his accuser filed a lawsuit in San Bernardino County Superior Court alleging the priest had repeatedly sexually abused him between 1983 and 1989 at both St. Matthew and St. Edward Catholic School, also in Corona.
The accuser claims he was about 5 years old when the alleged abuse began, according to his lawsuit, which also targets the Diocese of San Bernardino.
Slander suits by accused priests are considered rare, lawyers and victims advocates said, noting that the thousands of clergy abuse lawsuits filed nationwide in recent years have generated fewer than a dozen defamation lawsuits by clerics. None of those cases has been successful, although some are still pending, they said.
Last year, Monsignor Joseph F. Alzugaray of Napa filed a libel lawsuit against a woman who had accused him of molesting her in Monrovia during the late 1960s. That lawsuit also named the law firm where De Marco works and the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a national self-help group. A judge later dismissed the case against the attorney and the group.
In 2002, Monsignor Lawrence Baird in Orange County sued a San Francisco woman for slander after she accused him of sexually abusing her 20 years earlier. That case was also dismissed.
Bucaro's countersuit is believed to be first of its kind in the Inland diocese since 1995, when a former priest at St. Edward's sued the Inland diocese and some church officials for negligence and slander for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations that had been lodged against him. It was unclear what became of that case.
Officials with SNAP condemned Bucaro's slander lawsuit, saying it is intended to intimidate Bucaro's accuser but will also dissuade sexual abuse victims from coming forward.
"Victims already have enormous feelings to overcome: guilt, shame and blame," said Mary Grant, SNAP's southwest regional director. "For victims who may be thinking of taking that courageous step of reporting a crime to law enforcement or exposing their perpetrator, this can scare them back into silence."
Bucaro's attorney, Hershorin, disagreed, and he encouraged abuse victims to contact authorities.
"This is not an attempt to quell their (victims') right to file a lawsuit. What this lawsuit says is this person is saying false things about Father Bucaro and damaging his reputation and that's slander," Hershorin said.
Ordained in 1980, Bucaro has worked as the diocese's prison chaplain at the California Institution for Men in Chino since 1983, except for two years when he was in Wisconsin.
Bucaro volunteered not to engage in public ministry as a result of the abuse accusations, Lincoln said, adding that the priest is no longer conducting Mass or other general religious services at the prison.
There are no past accusations of sexual misconduct in Bucaro's personnel file, Lincoln said.
In October, members of SNAP handed out leaflets to parishioners at St. Matthew's, urging them to demand Bucaro's removal.
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