|Diocese Settles in Child Sex Abuse Lawsuit
By Shanna Sissom
November 28, 2011
A child sexual abuse lawsuit against the Diocese of San Angelo was settled Nov. 18 for an undisclosed amount. The lawsuit stemmed from allegations a former altar boy repeatedly was raped by the Rev. David Espitia as he was assigned at various churches throughout West Texas.
Espitia was found dead in his rectory June 13, 2003, just days after he told Bishop Michael Pfeifer of allegations coming forth against him. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, and the Colorado City Police Department later found hundreds of homosexual and child pornography images on his computer, according to court documents.
The assaults, according to plaintiff attorney Tahira Khan Merritt, spanned between 1994 to 2003, beginning when the boy was 7 or 8 until he was 16. Espitia was parochial vicar at St. Anthony and St. Joseph Catholic churches in Odessa, director of vocations and director of seminarians for the diocese and pastor at St. Ann's Parish in Colorado City, according to a press release from the plaintiff.
"Those assaults were never proven in any way legally; they were allegations," Pfeifer said. "We feel we could have defended ourselves had it gone on to the full process of trial."
But going to trial -- which had been scheduled for January -- would have been costly for the diocese, Pfeifer said.
Espitia took the child with him on trips during his various ministry stints, Merritt said.
The plaintiff is from Coleman, where he met Espitia. Coleman also was the priest's hometown. The boy's family attended Sacred Heart church.
When asked, Merritt said in addition to the facts in the case, public outrage from the recent Penn State University child sex scandal also would have weighed heavily on jurors' minds.
"Obviously we've seen the public outrage on these issues," Merritt said. "I think the public outrage over Penn State, though in a different arena than religion, certainly was going to affect a San Angelo juror."
Defense attorney Donald Griffis of Jackson Walker LLP, said the settlement was the result of the facts of the case and successful mediation, and not public outrage for abused children.
"Penn State is out there and perhaps other cases, but the settlement was more based upon the facts of our case," Griffis said. "A skilled mediator is often able to get parties to look at cases and costs involved in litigation and get a settlement."
The settlement, Merritt said, will help provide closure for her client.
"It's a day-to-day struggle for him and he feels he stood up for himself," Merritt said. "It's been a long, hard fight and he feels like he's gained some measure of justice."
Pfeifer, on the other hand, said he is saddened over the whole situation.
"That was a very difficult time, to know a priest took his own life," Pfeifer said. "I pray for him and all involved, those who brought the suit."
Asked if he believes his priest committed what had been alleged, Pfeifer replied:
"He told me he didn't and I believe him. The child, at the time, said he did. So we had two different voices," the bishop said. "I want to believe what he (Espitia) said was true.
"Thank God it's behind us."
Shanna Sissom can be reached at email@example.com
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