Abuse Case Enters Key Phase
Victim Testifies about Molestation in Effort to Determine Amount of Damages to Be Paid by the San Francisco Archdiocese

By Jean Guccione
Los Angeles Times [San Francisco CA]
March 22, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO A closely watched case that could set a benchmark for hundreds of sexual abuse claims against Roman Catholic dioceses in California moved to a crucial phase Monday as a former altar boy told jurors how he was repeatedly abused by a Roman Catholic priest over three years.

Dennis Kavanaugh, 47, testified he lost his faith in the years after he was molested in San Jose.

His mother told jurors that during his sophomore year in high school, her son lost interest in school and athletics and stopped going to Mass, telling her "there is no God."

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has conceded that Kavanaugh, a former altar boy, was molested during the 1970s by the late Father Joseph T. Pritchard and that the church must pay. What is at stake in the trial, and in a similar proceeding in Hayward, across San Francisco Bay, is how much the bill will be.

The question is of keen interest to church officials throughout the state as they try to negotiate settlements of about 700 claims from people alleging that they were sexually abused by priests. The amount the juries award could give the church and its insurers a sense of how much is at risk in the pending cases.

"Every lawyer and every insurance company and every bishop across the state is watching what's happening in San Francisco," said Larry Drivon, a Stockton lawyer who is trying the case against the archdiocese.

In December, the Diocese of Orange agreed to pay $100 million to resolve 90 sex abuse claims, but efforts elsewhere to settle before trial have slowed.

In Los Angeles, talks aimed at settling 544 claims against the Catholic archdiocese have entered their third year. Settlement talks are also continuing in cases involving the San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Rosa and Stockton dioceses, according to plaintiffs' lawyers involved in the negotiations.

Under the law, attorneys must show that church officials knew or had reason to know that an accused priest posed a risk to children. Jurors determined Friday that was the situation in Kavanaugh's case.

In San Francisco, a lawyer for the archdiocese conceded to jurors that Kavanaugh was entitled to be "reasonably compensated." Evidence in the case established that a fellow priest had been aware that Pritchard had molested other children before Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh "suffered as a result of his contact with Father Pritchard," attorney James Goodman said. In addition to his loss of faith, Kavanaugh was consumed with guilt for failing to protect other boys, including his younger brother, Goodman said. Twenty-two other claims against the church involving Pritchard have been filed.

Goodman said Kavanaugh does not claim to have suffered from more serious mental disorders often associated with child abuse, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Hayward on Monday, a jury was being selected to hear the testimony of two brothers who say their childhood priest, Father Robert Ponciroli, sexually assaulted them in 1980.

Evidence in the case showed that the Diocese of Oakland had complaints about the priest in its files dating to 1975.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard ruled earlier that the victims may seek punitive damages those designed to punish wrongdoers that could significantly increase the amount of money the church pays to resolve these and other claims.

Church lawyers are appealing that ruling.

Under state law, punitive damages must be paid in full by the church, not its insurers.

Rick Simons, the attorney who represents Bob and Tom Thatcher, the brothers who say they were abused by Ponciroli, said evidence would show that the bishop at the time, Floyd Begin, knew that Ponciroli was a risk.

Simons said he plans to show jurors a 1975 memo from Begin documenting that the diocese had received prior complaints that Ponciroli was "too free with boys, especially altar boys."

An altar boy told his parents that the priest "took my pants down, touched my privates," according to the memo.

It also states that a group of altar boys and others petitioned the pastor to do something about Ponciroli but got no response.

When confronted by church officials, Ponciroli denied the allegations, according to the memo, and asked to be transferred because "some of the people don't like me."

He was transferred five weeks later from St. Cornelius Catholic Church in Richmond to Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Castro Valley. He was promoted in 1979 to pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch, where he allegedly molested the Thatcher brothers from 1979 to 1983.

There are eight more people who have alleged in lawsuits that Ponciroli sexually abused them, Simons said.

The priest retired from ministry in 1995 and moved to Florida, where he was arrested in 2003 and extradited to California to face six counts of felony child molestation, which were dropped because the legal deadline for prosecution had passed.

During the police investigation, Simons said, Ponciroli admitted in a recorded telephone conversation that he was "a sick puppy."


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