Jury: Fresno Diocese Not Liable for Molestation by Priest

By Pablo Lopez
Fresno Bee
April 3, 2009

A Fresno jury this afternoon said the Diocese of Fresno was not liable for the molestation of two brothers by their hometown priest.

The jury concluded the two brothers, George and Howard Santillan, were molested by Monsignor Anthony Herdegen, but said the diocese did not know or had no reason to know about the incidents.

The brothers had alleged they were sexually abused by Herdegen, a priest in their hometown parish in Wasco, from 1959 through 1973.


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.

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

The witness list in Judge Donald Black's courtroom was a who's who of the Catholic hierarchy in California - Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop John Quinn and Bishop John T. Steinbock.

Mahony, now head of the nation's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles, was a high-level administrator in the Fresno diocese during some of the years the two brothers allege they were molested by Herdegen. Mahony has testified in a deposition that Herdegen's housekeeper, Barbara Zeilman, might have known about the priest's abuse and would have been expected to tell church higher-ups.

The brothers were seeking $20 million. The jury awarded them nothing after deliberating over two days.

The brothers' lawsuit was dismissed initially because the trial court ruled there was no evidence that the diocese had any knowledge of abuse by Herdegen.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled in May 2008 that Mahony's deposition testimony indicated the church was or should have been aware that Herdegen might have been an abuser.


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