Appeals Court Rebuffs Molestation Lawsuit

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
January 30, 2008

A state appeals court rejected a lawsuit Tuesday by two Bay Area men who said a clergyman molested them in 1962 and 1972 at a Sonoma County camp run by a Catholic order, which responded to their complaints by giving the clergyman two promotions.

The Second District Court of Appeal said the two men, identified only as Richard and Gil Doe, had presented no evidence that the Salesian Society knew Father Richard Presenti posed a risk of sexual misconduct before he allegedly molested them.

A California law gave victims of childhood sexual abuse that occurred many years earlier a one-year period, in 2003, to file civil suits against churches and other institutions that employed the molesters. Plaintiffs had to be able to prove the institution knew of the employee's illegal conduct and failed to take protective measures.

The men who sued the Salesians attended the order's Boys' Camp in Middletown.

In 1972, Richard Doe, then 10 or 11 years old, reported to another priest that he had been orally copulated and masturbated by Presenti.

In 1992, Gil Doe said he had been similarly molested 30 years earlier, when Presenti was a brother in the Salesian Society, six years before he became a priest. The youth was 12 or 13 at the time, his lawyer said.

Attorney Richard Simons said the Salesians responded to the first complaint by sending the organization's leader to meet with Richard Doe and his parents. Rather than disciplining Presenti, the Salesians made him a high school principal in Los Angeles, Simons said.

The organization likewise took no action against Presenti after Gil Doe's complaint, and he later became treasurer of the entire Salesian Society, a position he held until he retired in 2005, Simons said.

Presenti has never been criminally prosecuted. Simons said the priest admitted in a sworn deposition in 2005 that he had fondled and masturbated Richard Doe and two other boys sometime between 1970 and 1973, but denied molesting Gil Doe in 1962.

A judge in Alameda County dismissed the two men's suit against the Salesians, saying there was no evidence that the organization knew of any allegations against Presenti before Richard Doe's complaint in 1972.

The plaintiffs appealed, saying the church's claims of ignorance shouldn't be trusted because its files on Presenti contained no records of any complaints about sexual abuse until 1992, or of allegations against a Salesian youth minister in San Francisco who was convicted of molesting youngsters in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the Los Angeles-based appeals court, which is hearing all appeals of the civil suits against churches, said the plaintiffs had presented only speculation, rather than concrete evidence, that the Salesians knew anything was amiss before 1972.

Simons, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the ruling shows that "if you can hide the knowledge that you have sexually abusive priests in your diocese or order, then you'll get away with it."

Stephen McFeely, lawyer for the Salesians, said they "always believed they had no prior notice of Father Presenti's issues."

He said the organization "continues to be saddened that these two gentlemen (the plaintiffs) suffered," and has adopted procedures designed to prevent any repetition.



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