Sex Cases Pending

By Paul A. Anthony
San Angelo Standard-Times [Midland TX]
January 22, 2006,1897,SAST_4956_4407054,00.html

The woman's son was 11 when he told her he no longer wanted to go to confession.

The priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Midland had tried to kiss him on the lips the week before, the boy told his mother. He is identified in the lawsuit as Domingo Estrada.

The woman talked to priests at two other churches, who said they would "take care of it." When she didn't hear back from them, she said, she called back, and one priest told her the priest had said he wouldn't do it again.

"I still was not satisfied with that," the woman told prosecutors in 2002 during testimony before a Midland County grand jury. "I talked to an attorney, and I asked him, I said, 'What do you think I should do?' And he said, 'Well, we can write a letter to the bishop.' ... And we did send a letter to the bishop."

A transcript of the testimony, attached to documents filed in a Midland County state district court last month, is a key point in one of two lawsuits pending against the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo and its bishop, Michael D. Pfeifer, that allege sexual abuse at the hands of diocesan priests.

Although neither the woman nor her son has sued the diocese, her testimony could prove a central point in the Estrada lawsuit, which was filed in April by a 22-year-old man who was a minor at the time of the alleged abuse.

The lawsuits claim that Pfeifer and the diocese "knew or should have known" that the priests - Estrada in Midland and Miguel Esquivel in Big Lake - were abusive and should be held financially responsible for the damage caused by the alleged abuse.

State district Judge Tom Gossett is expected to rule as early as this week on motions that have delayed the Big Lake case for several months, determining which of thousands of diocesan documents should be turned over to the plaintiffs during the discovery process.

The Midland case also is awaiting a judge's ruling on the diocese's request to remove it and Pfeifer from the case.

Neither criminal case yielded a conviction - Esquivel's case was dismissed after the statute of limitations expired, and Estrada was acquitted in 2004 by a Midland County jury. The lawsuits seek undisclosed sums from the defendants. Both plaintiffs are represented by Dallas attorney Lori Watson, who has won millions of dollars from the Catholic Church on behalf of sexual-abuse victims.

Watson said she is not disclosing how much money she is seeking from the San Angelo Diocese, which encompasses 74 churches in 29 counties in West and Central Texas.

"When the cases arose, we acted responsibly," Pfeifer said. "There has never been a credible allegation that we've looked into."

Midland case

The alleged existence of the letter in the Midland case - which the woman testified was sent in 1989 - is central to the claim that Pfeifer knew of Estrada's alleged behavior during a time in which the lawsuit's plaintiff said he was raped by the priest.

The letter has not been found. Pfeifer said he never received or wrote any letters related to the allegation.

The woman, reached at her Midland County home, declined to comment, referring questions to Watson. The Standard-Times is not naming her to protect the identity of her son because he may be the victim of sexual abuse.

The case's plaintiff, identified in court documents only as John Doe, claimed Estrada, now 64, abused him from 1989 to 1994. Estrada was acquitted of five counts of indecency with a child and one count of aggravated sexual assault of a child in December 2004.

The man filed a civil lawsuit against Estrada, Pfeifer and the diocese in April 2005.

The civil case is complicated, Watson said, by Estrada's acquittal, which came after six-plus hours of jury deliberation.

The priest denied any abuse happened, and the diocese has argued that the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits expired before the suit was filed. It also said in court documents that the priest's alleged conduct was so far afield of what was expected from him that he could not be considered as acting in his role as an agent of Pfeifer and the diocese.

"The statute of limitations ran (out) years ago," said San Angelo attorney Don Griffis, who represents Pfeifer and the diocese in the Midland and Big Lake cases. "If any such acts did occur, it was not in the act or scope of being a priest."

Watson said Texas law clearly delays the statute of limitations for sexual crimes against a juvenile until the alleged victim's 18th birthday in civil cases, and the lawsuit hinges on a legal theory in which the employers are responsible for the actions of an employee in the workplace - not on whether molesting children was part of his priestly duties.

Also named in the lawsuit is the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a San Antonio-based Catholic order to which Estrada belongs.

Estrada was transferred back to San Antonio, where he now lives, before the accusations arose, Pfeifer said, and left the diocese in the early 1990s with high marks.

"That case came to my attention, I think, in 2003," Pfeifer said. "He's not a member of the diocese, and he left in good standing."

On Sept. 21, 2005, the aforementioned Midland woman signed an affidavit saying she and an attorney composed a letter to Pfeifer in 1989, telling him about the alleged incident involving Estrada and her son. Pfeifer might have sent a letter back to the attorney, she said.

No record of either letter exists, Watson said. The attorney in question no longer is practicing, and a listing for him could not be found. Nevertheless, Watson said, the diocese remains legally responsible for Estrada's alleged actions.

"They're liable for anything if it's done within the place of employment," she said, "even if it's outside the course and scope of his duties."

Big Lake case

The case follows another filed against the diocese in July 2002, when a woman, now 31, accused Big Lake priest Miguel Esquivel of having sex with her from 1987 to 1992, when she was between 12 and 18 years old.

As in the Midland lawsuit, Watson's plaintiff alleges Pfeifer received word of the priest's alleged tendencies in the midst of the alleged abuse. An unrelated woman in a sworn affidavit says she told the bishop in 1991 her goddaughter and niece had suffered unidentified abuse at the hands of Esquivel.

The criminal case was dismissed because the alleged victim - although she filed a criminal complaint with the Reagan County Sheriff's Office before the 10-year statute of limitations expired - turned 28 before prosecutors won an indictment from a Reagan County grand jury.

Esquivel then disappeared.

Pfeifer said he first became aware of the abuse when the alleged victim told him in April 2002. Pfeifer said he offered her counseling and removed Esquivel from active service.

Esquivel then severed connections with the church, Pfeifer said, channeling communication through his defense attorney. When the criminal charges were dismissed, the priest severed contact with everyone involved in the case.

"He is AWOL," Pfeifer said, adding that Esquivel is still assigned to the San Angelo Diocese; however, "He's not in good standing."

An affidavit filed in the civil case by a Reagan County woman disputes Pfeifer's claim that he learned of Esquivel's alleged abuse 10 years after it occurred.

In the affidavit, the Reagan County woman said she told Pfeifer that Esquivel abused her niece and goddaughter, both children - and that she supplied him with undetermined documentation. In talks with the diocese's director of communications, she said, she was told to "stay out of it."

Any documents the Reagan county woman provided Pfeifer would be among the reams of paper being reviewed by Gossett to determine what should be handed over to the plaintiffs. No one but the diocese and Gossett knows what they contain, Watson said.

"If they acted on it," Watson said, "they could have ended at least some of my client's abuse."

Pfeifer acknowledged the woman talked to him, but he said she provided no evidence. Likewise, in previous interviews, Pfeifer has said Esquivel was ordered to undergo a six-month treatment program in 1993 after complaints that he had inappropriately touched women - but that none of the complaints mentioned children.

"I asked her to please give me some more evidence because she was at odds not only with the priest, but with the other leaders of the (religious) community," Pfeifer said. "She never came back. ... She's bound by law to report it. Why didn't she act? Her affidavit doesn't hold water."

The diocese has used an array of legal objections in an effort to stifle the case, Watson said - including claiming First Amendment protection to prevent the plaintiffs from seeing church records about Esquivel.

When State District Judge Rae Leifeste failed to win re-election, the case was delayed as the sides again argued their positions before Gossett. The judge reinstated Leifeste's original ruling, ordering the church to turn over the documents to him for review so he can determine whether Watson should have access to them.

"There's about 2,000 pages of documents," Gossett said this month, adding that the case's file is about a foot thick. "I've got about 300 pages to go."

Once Gossett decides which documents can be turned over, the monthslong discovery process begins. When that evidence is compiled, Gossett said, he will hear arguments on the church's motion for summary judgment, which seeks the dismissal of Pfeifer and the diocese from the suit.

That hearing likely is months away.

Other troubles

The cases follow a third - one the diocese settled in 2002 with a man who claimed a San Angelo church seminarian touched him inappropriately.

Watson represented the plaintiff in that case, as well. The seminarian, a Spanish native, was sent back to Spain.

That was the weakest of the three lawsuits against the diocese, Watson said.

"We didn't have any smoking-gun notice against them," she said.

Also troubling the diocese in recent years: Allegations against David Espitia, a Colorado City priest who killed himself in 2003 after telling Pfeifer of the accusations and protesting his innocence.

Pfeifer said the incidents have been isolated, and an audit required by the Catholic Church and performed by outside consultants gave the San Angelo diocese high praise last year for the steps it has taken to reduce the possibility of sexual abuse within the clergy.

The audit lauded the diocese for creating a "safe environment for children."

Since May 2003, the diocese has conducted more than 100 ethics workshops for clergy, employees and volunteers with the church, Pfeifer said.

"For the past two years, the diocese was found to be in complete compliance" with new policies requiring workshops with women and children, strict background checks for new priests and annual examinations of complaints, Pfeifer said. "Of course, people can hide things. ... Looking at their background and being fair and truthful about these situations, I think we can detect this situation and prevent it from happening."


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