Sexual Abuse Suit against Priest Who Hanged Himself Settled

By Jennifer Rios
Standard Times
November 29, 2011

SAN ANGELO, Texas -- Diocese of San Angelo Bishop Michael Pfeifer said the recent settlement of a sexual abuse lawsuit against the diocese in no way meant it accepted the accusations against one of its former priests.

He said both sides felt the settlement, which was not disclosed, was the best solution to the suit.

The priest, Father David Espitia, hanged himself June 13, 2003, in Colorado City, Texas, after the allegations of abuse became known to the diocese.

The suit alleged Espitia had abused a boy over an eight-year period, up to 2002, while Espitia was a priest in the San Angelo Diocese.

"It was never proven; it was an allegation," Pfeifer said.

He said he believed the diocese had a strong case and was prepared to go to trial.

The cost of attorney and legal fees, along with costly research to prepare for trial, played a part in the decision to come to a settlement.

Tahira Khan Merritt, the Dallas lawyer representing the alleged victim, filed the lawsuit which sought "punitive and exemplary" damages from the priest's estate and the diocese, alleging the diocese and Pfeifer had known Espitia was a danger to children and had done nothing to prevent abuse.

According to a December 2009 Standard-Times article, Pfeifer said Espitia told him June 6, 2003, that he had been accused of sexual abuse of a child.

Documents filed with the case indicated law enforcement authorities had found child pornography on Espitia's computer after his death.

On Wednesday, Pfeifer said that shortly after he first learned of the allegation he got in contact with the boy's family and offered counseling.

According to a news release sent nearly two weeks ago from the alleged victim's attorney, "complaints to Bishop Pfeifer regarding Espitia's behavior and activities were received from parishioners as early as 1995 and again in 2001 but Espitia was never evaluated, sent for treatment, or disciplined in any way."

Pfeifer challenged that statement, saying it implied the complaints related to sexual abuse.

"There were a few complaints that came in, but they were in no way of a sexual nature," he said Wednesday.

Instead they were with administration people within the ministry, including a teacher Espitia "didn't agree with."

Since the suit was filed in December 2009, Pfeifer has denied all allegations.

The amount of the settlement was confidential, but Merritt said her client considered it satisfactory.

A trial had been scheduled for Jan. 17 in the 340th District Court in San Angelo.

"The plaintiff is finally able to get closure on this matter. He asserted his rights by filing the case, and this is going to be a long journey for him, with a lot of therapy and a lot of help," Merritt said. "Like the Penn State case, a lot of healing comes with the exposure."


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