Ruling Pending Case against Priest, Bishop

By Bob Campbell
Midland Reporter-Telegram [Texas]
May 11, 2006

Opposing attorneys in a lawsuit alleging the sexual abuse of a boy by his priest have submitted an agreed-on scheduling order to 142nd District Court Judge George Gilles that would convene the civil trial in March next year.

Gilles on Wednesday had not ruled on a mid-December defense motion for a summary judgment dismissing the allegations against the Rev. Domingo "Father Mingo" Estrada, the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Bishop Michael Pfeifer and Estrada's priestly order, the Oblate Fathers.

Defense lawyers Bill Clifton of Midland and Don Griffis of San Angelo and plaintiff's attorney Lori Watson of Dallas indicated optimism that a ruling on the scheduling order would be forthcoming.

"All lawyers have asked the court for a trial date next spring to ensure that all the depositions and other discovery can be completed by then," Watson said this week.

"It is not unusual for a court to abate ruling on a summary judgment in order to allow the parties to conduct discovery so that all the evidence can be presented to the court for its decision."

Clifton declined comment on Gilles' delay in the summary judgment ruling, which the judge said he would make by early January after hearing arguments in a 75-minute hearing last Dec. 16. The judge has declined comment on several occasions since then other than to say the ruling will be made public.

The discovery process entails having a court reporter take sworn testimony from prospective witnesses while attorneys ask questions that in court could be favorable to the other side. The lawyers propose finishing discovery, which endeavors to reveal all possible evidence, by Jan. 31, 2007.

Clifton confirmed that both sides have agreed on a schedule of pre-trial business, assuming Gilles does not dismiss the now 22-year-old victim's allegations against Estrada, former pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Estrada's order, and the diocese and bishop.

"We're in the process of getting the scheduling order signed," said Clifton. "The parties have agreed on a trial date and we should get a docket control order in a week or two. It's usually in the form of 'a trial in the month of' or something like that."

Griffis said in court last December that neither the diocese nor the Oblates should be held responsible even if Estrada, now 64 and living in San Antonio, did molest the boy six times between 1989 and 1994.

"Any such acts would have been a deviation from his employment and purely personal to him," said Griffis.

"The duty of a priest is to reflect God's love and not his own sinful desires. Bishop Pfeifer had no reason to believe Father Estrada was a pedophile."

Estrada was criminally tried for the allegations in 238th District Court in December 2004 and acquitted on all counts. "This same plaintiff testified under oath in the criminal trial that he was not seeking any monetary award while, in fact, evidence was shown that his attorney had already sent a demand letter to Archbishop Patrick flores precisely seeking to settle all claims," Pfeifer told the Reporter-Telegram after last year's hearing.

"I believe this suit against the diocese is totally without merit."

Griffis invoked a two-year statute of limitations that he said expired in September 2004 because the alleged victim had first made his allegations at a two years earlier.

Watson cited the Texas Legislature's 1995 approval of a five-year limit starting with the victim's 18th birthday in aggravated cases. She said the alleged victim told a number of people, including other Our Lady of Guadalupe priests, before September 2002 that he had been molested.

"They should have acted on it and stopped this abuse," Watson said. "The Oblates had control over this particular priest to remove him from serving anywhere in the diocese."


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