5 S.D. Diocese Sex-Abuse Suits Freed for Trial

By Mark Sauer
Union-Tribune [San Diego CA]
May 27, 2006

The first of more than 150 sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego are finally headed for trial after years of delay caused by legal challenges and a stalled mediation process.

Cases involving five former San Diego priests, in which eight men and women allege sexual abuse when they were children, were ordered to trial by a Los Angeles judge yesterday.

Barring settlement, the five cases are expected to come to light in a San Diego courtroom in the fall or next winter after a ruling by Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz. He is overseeing nearly 600 sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against priests and their dioceses in Los Angeles and San Diego stemming from alleged acts dating back decades.

Fromholz ordered that trials commence in November for five Los Angeles abuse cases and was contacting San Diego court officials to see when the five San Diego cases could be scheduled and heard by a local Superior Court judge.

Hundreds of such cases have been either tried or settled across California and the nation for about $1.5 billion collectively. But cases involving San Diego and Los Angeles victims have languished as the two dioceses have pressed several legal challenges, including one that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We are very excited about the prospect of going to trial," said San Diego attorney Irwin Zalkin, whose firm filed one of the five released cases. "Our clients are very anxious to get their stories out, and (yesterday's ruling) is a major step toward that end."

A spokesman for the San Diego diocese expressed optimism about the judge's ruling.

"This represents a step forward in the litigation process which we hope will lead to resolution in these cases," Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia wrote in an e-mail.

"While litigation continues, this diocese remains open to discussing settlement of pending claims, and we encourage plaintiffs who are interested in a fair resolution of their claims to contact us" directly, Valdivia's statement continued.

A San Diego County Superior Court spokeswoman said yesterday that it will be next week at the earliest before the cases, most of which were filed in 2003, are scheduled for trial.

By forcing specific cases out of mediation, the judge may be "firing a shot across the bow of the San Diego and Los Angeles dioceses," said Geoff Morrison, a San Diego trial attorney.

"It may be the judge has determined the attorneys are at absolute loggerheads and he's decided it's time to try some cases, have everybody else involved watch what happens and see if the parties can then bear down and get a global settlement on all of these lawsuits," Morrison said.

Richard Schoenberger, a San Francisco attorney whose case against the San Diego diocese involving four orphaned sisters from Europe is among the five headed toward trial, rejoiced at Fromholz's ruling.

"This lawsuit was filed in the fall of 2003 and has really been in no-man's land ever since," he said. "It has been a great source of frustration to the four sisters."

Schoenberger said his clients, who have yet to be identified publicly, were orphans from Europe between the ages of 5 and 13 in the 1950s, when they say they were abused.

"They were placed in foster care here under the umbrella of Catholic Charities when they were systematically abused by Father Franz Robier, a priest from Germany who had spent time in Brazil before coming to San Diego," Schoenberger said.

All abuse cases are egregious, he said, "but these were particularly so."

"The sisters all knew what one of them was enduring, at the beach, say, or in the water. At the dinner table, while one sister was made to sit on Robier's lap, the others knew exactly what he was doing."

In addition to Robier, who died in 1994, the priests involved in the five lawsuits headed for trial are:

• Edward Anthony Rodrigue, who was removed from the priesthood in 1992 after multiple allegations of abuse and was sentenced to 10 years in state prison in 1998 for molesting a developmentally disabled boy. He now lives in San Bernardino, according to state records.

• Monsignor William Kraft, who died in 1982.

• The Rev. Patrick O'Keefe, who is retired from the Diocese of San Bernardino.

• The Rev. John Daly, who died in 1989.

Zalkin, the San Diego attorney, said his case involves a client who says Rodrigue molested him over the course of a year beginning in 1976 at Our Lady of Guadalupe in El Centro. Zalkin would not identify the client.

The molestation took place in the church rectory, in a vehicle and at swimming pools, Zalkin's client says, and involved masturbation, forced oral copulation and fondling of him and "other boys in my presence."

Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227;


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