Church's Experts Testify Lap-Sitting Did Not Signal Abuse
At Issue Is What Was Known of Priest's Behavior in 1970s

By Steve Rubenstein
San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco CA]
March 17, 2005

A third-grader sitting on a priest's lap in his private living quarters is not necessarily a cause for concern, two sex-abuse experts testified Wednesday in San Francisco.

It all depends on what else was going on at the time, according to testimony from retired investigators from the sex crimes units of the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department.

Their opinions came on the final day of testimony in a groundbreaking lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco by Dennis Kavanaugh, 47, who says he was repeatedly molested in the 1970s by a priest in a San Jose church.

The lap-sitting issue has come into play in part because of the testimony Tuesday of two other men who say they were also molested in separate incidents by the priest, the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard, at St. Martin of Tours Church.

They both testified that they had been sitting on Pritchard's lap as he molested them when another priest walked in on them in Pritchard's private quarters. Kavanaugh's attorneys have tried to show that as a result, the San Francisco Archdiocese, which oversaw the church, knew or should have known that Pritchard was a molester, did nothing about it and thus should be liable for damages.

Attorneys for the archdiocese have tried to show that the second priest, Father Lino Pelerzi, could see nothing more when he walked in either time than a boy on a priest's lap.

Former FBI agent and sex crimes investigator Gregg McCrary, testifying for the archdiocese, told the jury Wednesday that sexual molestation was less widely understood in the 1970s, and that experts then believed it was committed mostly by "dirty old men on playgrounds (and) shadowy male figures in raincoats," not by priests.

Asked by church attorney Jim Goodman whether a child sitting on a priest's lap would be considered suspicious, McCrary replied, "Not necessarily.

"You have to put it in context," he said. "In the 1970s, it was a time of innocence. That innocence has clearly been lost. We're not looking at it as we understand child molestation today."

Retired San Francisco police investigator Richard Hesselroth of the sex crimes unit, also testifying for the church, agreed that such lap-sitting could be seen as innocent.

A national advocate for sex abuse victims later said he could barely believe the testimony he was hearing.

"This doesn't pass the common-sense test," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who has been watching the trial in San Francisco Superior Court. "Most parents would find that behavior -- a little boy and a celibate man in his private living quarters -- on its face very suspicious."

The archdiocese does not contest that Pritchard molested Kavanaugh, but says church leaders had no way of knowing about it and should not be held accountable.

In other testimony, the parochial school principal and the parish council chairman at St. Martin of Tours both testified that they had no reason to suspect Pritchard of sex crimes.

The suit is the first to come to trial against the Catholic Church in California, since a 2002 law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations in pedophilia cases. Its outcome could affect what the church will pay to settle about 150 other clergy sex-abuse cases in Northern California.

The trial continues this morning with closing arguments. Superior Court Judge John Munter said he expects the six-man, six-woman jury to begin deliberating this afternoon.


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