Priest Abuse Called Root of Brothers' Woes
Psychologists Say Social Troubles, Substance Abuse Stemmed from Boyhood Incidents

By Henry K. Lee
San Francisco Chronicle [Hayward CA]
March 31, 2005

The drug and alcohol problems and anxiety that have plagued two former altar boys are in large part the result of the brothers' being victimized as children by a sexually abusive priest, two clinical psychologists testified Wednesday in the civil case against the Oakland Diocese.

Tom Thatcher, 33, suffered from "social phobia" and a methamphetamine addiction after the Rev. Robert Ponciroli abused him in the early 1980s at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch, psychologist Thomas Joiner of Tallahassee, Fla., told a Hayward jury.

Thatcher's troubles emerged when he hit puberty, becoming confused in sexual and social situations, Joiner said. Memories of the abuse were "like a time bomb in his head that really exploded in adolescence," Joiner testified.

Thatcher's brother, Bob, 34, meanwhile, developed generalized anxiety disorder, abused alcohol, had intimacy issues with his wife and was overcome with guilt that both he and his brother had fallen victim to Ponciroli, psychologist Janet Sonne told jurors.

The testimony came on the third day of trial in the courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard.

The Thatcher brothers allege that the diocese had known as early as 1975 from church memos that Ponciroli had a predilection toward acting inappropriately with young boys and was a danger to children, but did nothing about it.

Church attorneys have admitted that the Oakland Diocese, which encompasses Alameda and Contra Costa counties, was negligent in its supervision of Ponciroli and could be liable for compensatory -- but not punitive -- damages.

The outcome of the trial could influence the collective settlement of what is known as Clergy III, more than 150 similar lawsuits filed against Catholic dioceses across Northern California.

Bob Thatcher has accused Ponciroli of touching him inappropriately on two occasions after being summoned to the priest's bedroom and once while they were in a car.

"Has Bob Thatcher, in your opinion, carried negative feelings of guilt and shame as a result of being abused by Father Ponciroli?" the brothers' attorney, Rick Simons, asked Sonne.

"He felt a tremendous amount of guilt because he let his younger brother go up before him" in a rectory where Ponciroli was waiting, said Sonne, a psychologist in Redlands (San Bernardino County).

"He felt like he was just standing there while other people were being victimized, because he couldn't speak about it," Sonne said.

On cross-examination, church attorney Allen Ruby of San Jose sought to portray the Thatcher brothers as victims of a verbally abusive father. Ruby asked the psychologists whether the brothers' problems as adults also stemmed from their parents' separation.

Sonne said she believed that Ponciroli's actions were directly responsible for Bob Thatcher's anguish. Making matters worse, Bob Thatcher felt he had to keep quiet, especially around church officials.

"He had no way to cope with the stress, and he kept it inside him," Sonne said.

Ruby asked Sonne whether Bob Thatcher had said that he "hated" his father, but Sonne said she didn't believe he had used that word.

Also Wednesday, Berkeley firefighter Marc Mestrovich testified that Ponciroli had molested him after the priest invited the former altar boy to spend a weekend helping him move from Our Lady of Grace Parish in Castro Valley to the Antioch church.

Simons asked Mestrovich whether Ponciroli had touched him in a way that he "found disturbing."

"Yes, he did," Mestrovich replied.

Ruby declined to cross-examination the firefighter. Afterward, Simons embraced Mestrovich, telling him, "That was courageous of you."

Ponciroli, 68, has been removed from public ministry and is not a defendant in the civil case. He faced criminal molestation charges until the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that a separate law retroactively extending the statute of limitations in criminal cases was unconstitutional.

The trial, which could last a month, resumes Monday.


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