Fresno Diocese Cleared in Molest
Church Not Liable for Priest's Actions Because Officials Didn't Know at the Time, Jury Finds.

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee
April 3, 2009

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno is not liable for the conduct of a priest who molested two former altar boys more than 35 years ago, a Fresno County Superior Court jury ruled Friday.

Jurors unanimously agreed that Monsignor Anthony Herdegen molested the brothers from 1959 to 1972 while Herdegen was a priest at St. John's Catholic Church in Wasco. But church officials didn't know about it at the time, jurors found.

That means George and Howard Santillan will walk away empty-handed after a nearly six-year legal battle. They had sought $20 million from the diocese.

But the brothers and their attorneys -- Jeff Anderson and Tony DeMarco -- said they accomplished their main goal.

"We got their truth out," Anderson said.

Before the trial, church officials never had publicly acknowledged that the brothers had been molested, Anderson said.

"The church has been covering up abuse for decades," George Santillan said. "Hopefully, other children who have been abused by priests will get the courage to step forward."

The brothers sued the diocese in 2003 under a one-year window that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on old abuse claims in California.

They contend the diocese was negligent in hiring, supervising and retaining Herdegen. They wanted damages for their pain and suffering, as well as money to pay for counseling.

To prevail, the brothers had to prove that the church knew or should have known about Herdegen's unlawful misconduct.

Once the trial started three weeks ago, church officials never denied Herdegen's unlawful sexual conduct. The diocese's attorneys, Rosemary McGuire and James Weakley, also told jurors that Bishop John T. Steinbock suspended Herdegen as a priest once he learned of the abuse in 2002.

During the trial, George Santillan, 59, and Howard Santillan, 54, testified that they were young children when Herdegen started to let them into the rectory after they did a secret knock. Herdegen later gave them a key.

The brothers said the monsignor would give them rubdowns with alcohol and oil and fondle their private parts, causing them to ejaculate. The monsignor would then reward them with a gold coin. Howard Santillan told the jury he received about 500 gold coins from Herdegen.

Herdegen also took the boys out to dinner, on vacation and showered them with gifts. Howard Santillan testified that Herdegen bought him a car and a motorcycle.

Once they realized they were victims, the brothers said they lived in shame, had suicidal thoughts, and turned to alcohol and drugs.

A key issue was whether Herdegen's housekeeper, Barbara Zeilman, knew about the abuse, and whether she had a duty to tell the diocese. The Santillans testified that Zeilman saw them frequently in the rectory with Herdegen.

The brothers' mother, Letha Santillan, also learned about the abuse in 1985 and confronted Zeilman about it before Zeilman died. According to court records, the housekeeper replied: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

But Zeilman's statements did not mean she knew about the abuse, attorneys for the diocese argued. Letha Santillan gave her sons permission to be with Herdegen, the lawyers said. If she didn't know about the abuse back then, how could Zeilman and other church officials know about it, the lawyers asked.

Jurors voted 9-3 to exonerate the diocese. In a civil trial, nine jurors must agree to reach a verdict. The panel of seven women and five men had deliberated for two days.

In a statement, Bishop Steinbock expressed regret that Herdegen had abused the Santillans, "even though the diocese learned that they were abused years after it occurred."

"Bishop Steinbock emphasized that if even one child is sexually abused, that is one child too many," the statement said. "Child sexual abuse afflicts all of society, and no community or institution is free from its effects -- even the church."

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6434.


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