Initial Trial in S.D. Church-Abuse Cases Is Delayed

By Mark Sauer
Union-Tribune [San Diego CA]
January 16, 2007

The first trial of approximately 150 lawsuits filed against the Diocese of San Diego alleging sexual abuse by clergy has been postponed for a month at the request of a plaintiff's attorney.

A lawsuit filed by Nikki Rister, who claims the Rev. Patrick O'Keeffe coaxed her into having sex when she was 17, was to have started tomorrow. It was pushed back to Feb. 14 by Superior Court Judge John Einhorn.

Rister's claim involves incidents from 1972 at St. Adelaide Catholic Church in the San Bernardino suburb of Highland, which was a part of the San Diego diocese at the time.

Lawyers for Rister, who now lives in Colorado, requested the delay in order to review documents from O'Keeffe's personnel file that were just released by the diocese following a judge's order, her chief attorney, Katherine Freberg, said.

The documents, which won't be made public until trial, bolstered her client's case, said Freberg, who is based in Irvine. She noted that O'Keeffe several years ago fled to Ireland where he was deposed last year rather than face criminal sex-abuse charges in San Bernardino County in a case dating to 1990.

O'Keeffe, who Freberg said was removed from priestly duties in 1994, is one of a handful of the 60 priests and ex-priests accused in the San Diego lawsuits who is still alive.

The cases involve allegations going back decades. Nearly all were filed in 2003 when the California Legislature declared a one-year moratorium on the statute of limitations for child-abuse civil claims.

Officials of the San Diego diocese have declined to comment on the lawsuits.

The Rister trial is expected to last two weeks. It will be followed in early March by a case brought by Michael Shoemaker.

The Kansas resident said he was 16 in 1977 when he was molested by the now-deceased Rev. John Daly at St. Joseph Church in the Imperial County town of Holtville.

A case also set for early March dates to the 1950s.

That suit was brought by four orphaned sisters from Germany who allege the late Rev. Franz Robier sexually abused them repeatedly at a San Diego orphanage run by Catholic Charities.

Following those trials will be the case of an unnamed plaintiff, one of several to file lawsuits against the late William Kraft.

In this one, a man alleges that the monsignor abused him for five years, beginning at age 11, and tried to rape him in the church rectory at St. Therese in Del Cerro in 1969.

Scheduled for June is one case among 22 filed against admitted serial pedophile Edward Anthony Rodrigue.

The former priest is living in San Bernardino after his release from state prison last January. Rodrigue was convicted in 1998 of molesting a disabled boy.

More than a third of the 150-plus lawsuits filed against the Diocese of San Diego have been released for trial by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Haley Fromholz, who is also overseeing an additional 485 cases against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

After years of fruitless mediation and legal wrangling, Fromholz last summer ordered 10 cases to trial, five here and five in Los Angeles. The judge recently issued an order that more than 50 additional San Diego cases be readied for trial.

It is expected that jury verdicts in a handful of these cases will spur settlement of the rest.

"We need to go to trial somebody needs a reality check," said Irwin Zalkin, a Del Mar attorney representing about 30 percent of the plaintiffs who filed cases against the San Diego diocese.

"Either we (the plaintiffs) are in the stratosphere in what we are demanding, or they (the diocesan attorneys) are very low in what they are offering," Zalkin said.

"The only way for everyone to get real is to get verdicts."

Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227;


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