Trial's Outcome Could Affect Results in 150 Other Cases

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco CA]
March 30, 2005

Mabis Wood, a founding member of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch, couldn't understand why her 13-year-old son, Troy, suddenly refused to go anywhere near "Father Bob."

It was 1982. Troy had always looked up to the priest, the Rev. Robert Ponciroli, as a second father. He'd served as one of his parish altar boys and volunteered to cut the grass outside his suburban rectory.

"Troy started having all these excuses for not going over to cut the lawn, " Mabis Wood recalled in a Hayward courtroom Tuesday. "He didn't want to be around the church and he did not want to talk about why."

Wood and her husband questioned their son and found out why.

Troy Wood explained the reason in court himself on Tuesday. He said he had been enticed up to the priest's bed, told to take off his shirt and grabbed from behind for an extended round of "tickling."

Troy's story is much like the one told by two other former altar boys, Bob and Tom Thatcher, the plaintiffs in this closely watched trial before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard.

Twelve jurors have been called to pass judgment on the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland for its admittedly negligent supervision of a known pedophile priest. The outcome of the case could encourage the collective settlement of more than 150 similar lawsuits filed against Catholic dioceses across Northern California.

Separate negotiations are continuing toward a possible settlement of about 75 cases against the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which includes San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties, and more than 40 claims facing the Oakland diocese, which runs parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

"There's progress being made in San Francisco and Oakland," said Walnut Creek attorney Mike Meadows, who represents clients on both sides of the bay.

Attorneys for victims, the Oakland diocese and its various insurance companies have been called to meet Monday afternoon with Alameda County Superior Court Judge David Hunter, one of two judges overseeing settlement negotiations.

The legal morass surrounding the Catholic Church was created by a 2002 law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on damages claims against organizations that gave known child molesters access to more victims.

On Monday, the Thatchers' lawyer admitted into evidence internal church documents showing that top leaders of the Oakland diocese had numerous warnings that Ponciroli was a child molester, yet they promoted him to be the founding pastor of the Antioch parish.

Among those testifying Tuesday at the Hayward Hall of Justice was another admitted pedophile priest, the Rev. Robert Freitas, who served Catholic churches in Hayward, Newark, Fremont and San Leandro.

Freitas said his church supervisor learned in the mid-1970s that Freitas had molested minors. At that time, Freitas testified, he was told to confess his sins, but given no therapy for his problem.

Freitas said he was then assigned to a church in Fremont from 1979 to 1983, where he committed "more than one incident" of molestation.

After that, Freitas said he was sent to a six-month treatment program at a facility in Massachusetts called the House of Affirmation.

Under questioning from the Thatchers' lawyer, Rick Simons, Freitas said he thinks he would not have committed the Fremont molestations if he had gotten earlier treatment.

Freitas, 59, said he left his last priestly assignment two years ago at St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in San Leandro.

Ponciroli, 68, has also been removed from public ministry.

Bob Thatcher, 34, now lives in Arizona. His brother Tom, 33, lives in Florida.

Testimony was expected to continue today in Hayward.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.