Update: Jury Finds Oakland Diocese Negligent in Sexual Abuse Case

KPIX [Hayward CA]
April 15, 2005

An Alameda County Superior Court jury ruled today that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland was negligent in allowing two former Antioch altar boys to be molested by their parish priest.

After only a day of deliberations, the 10-woman, two-man panel awarded Robert and Tom Thatcher a total of $1.93 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Their attorney Rick Simons had asked for a total of $27 million in damages, but he said today that the verdict was a victory for the Thatcher brothers nonetheless because, "We established for history's sake that the Bishop of Oakland had a policy of hiding known child molesters."

Although many Catholic priests have stood trial on sex abuse allegations, Simons said he believes the Thatchers' case is the first trial in the U.S. in which the policies of a diocese have been put on trial.

Tom Thatcher said the jury's verdict "was emotional because it was a three-year legal process for us and we spent so long wondering if the diocese would be found accountable and it finally was."

The Oakland diocese's lead attorney for the trial, Allen Ruby, wasn't present for the verdict today because his wife was undergoing a medical procedure. Another attorney for the diocese, Stephen McFeely, declined to comment. The diocese's spokesman, Father Mark Weisner, was unavailable for comment.

During a two-week trial before Judge Harry Sheppard, Simons said that Robert Thatcher was about 10 and Tom Thatcher was about 9 when the Rev. Robert Ponciroli of St. Ignatius Church in Antioch molested them on several occasions in the fall of 1980.

Simons said the first occasion was on a day the brothers did some yard work for Ponciroli at his rectory and then called him up to his bedroom one at a time, telling them that they needed to be punished.

Simons said the diocese was negligent because it assigned Ponciroli to St. Ignatius Church in Antioch in 1979 even though it knew he had a long history as a child molester.

Instead of sending a model priest to the new parish, the diocese, by assigning Ponciroli, "sent a man with the language and temperament of a sailor and the hands of a child molester," Simons said in his closing argument yesterday.

Ponciroli, who is now 68, lives in Florida and has been barred from public ministry.

Simons asked jurors to award Robert Thatcher, 34, who now lives in Chandler, Ariz., where he works as a sales manager for Napa Auto Parts and has a wife and a 2-year-old child, $6 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages.

Simons said Tom Thatcher, now a 34-year-old maintenance worker living in Longwood, Fla. with his wife and two kids, should be awarded $3 million in compensatory damages.

Ruby, the diocese's lawyer, said damages in the range of $250,000 to $450,000 would be appropriate.

Jurors decided to award Robert Thatcher $875,000 in compensatory damages and another $875,000 in punitive damages. They awarded Tom Thatcher $180,000 in compensatory damages.

Simons asked jurors to find that the diocese was 100 percent responsible for all the damages, but jurors found that the diocese was 60 percent responsible for the compensatory damages and Ponciroli was 40 percent responsible. The jury found that the diocese was 100 percent responsible for the punitive damages.

Simons said the Thatchers won't be able to collect any money from Ponciroli because he wasn't a party to the lawsuit since a state law that allowed victims to file suit over old cases of sexual abuse only permitted institutions, such as the diocese, to be sued, not individual priests.

Simons said he asked for a larger damage award for Robert Thatcher because experts have said he will suffer lifelong medical and psychological problems from the sexual abuse he suffered.

In his closing argument, Simons said Robert Thatcher feels guilty about having had Tom go first when Ponciroli summoned the brothers to his bedroom one at a time 25 years ago.

Robert Thatcher "felt that as the older brother he should have protected his brother, and that's a terrible burden and he never got over it," Simons said, alleging that it's the Diocese of Oakland that should feel bad about what happened, not Robert Thatcher.

Simons said Tom Thatcher reacted to the sexual abuse he suffered by experimenting with drugs and getting addicted to methamphetamines for seven years.

"For seven years he lived in a prison without walls" and the Oakland diocese must be held accountable for that, Simons said.

The Thatcher case could set a precedent for more than 150 lawsuits brought against dioceses throughout Northern California in a mega case known as Clergy Three. Clergy One and Two are similar mega cases against Catholic dioceses in Southern California involving hundreds of lawsuits there.

Settlement talks are continuing in 43 other Oakland diocese cases that are pending in Alameda County Superior Court before Judge David Hunter.

In a San Francisco Superior Court case last month that also could set a precedent for clergy abuse cases, a jury awarded $437,000 in damages to a man who said he was repeatedly abused by a San Jose priest. That case involved the San Francisco Archdiocese.


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