Teen Sues Diocese of Santa Rosa over Sexual Abuse Allegations Involving Former Lakeport Priest

By Elizabeth Larson
Lake County News
August 22, 2013

A teenager who previously served as a St. Mary Immaculate Parish altar boy has sued the Diocese of Santa Rosa, alleging he was sexually abused by a former priest.

The law firm of Manly, Stewart & Finaldi filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 16-year-old plaintiff, identified as “John JC Doe,” on Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court, according to attorney Skye Daley.

This suit alleges that the late Father Ted Oswald sexually abused John JC Doe while he was serving as an altar boy and participating in the parish youth group under Oswald’s supervision.

Dan Galvin, the diocese's attorney, said Wednesday that he hadn't yet seen the complaint and therefore couldn't offer any comment.

Oswald, who died in July 2010 at age 65, was put on leave and later retired after a 2008 lawsuit was filed against him and the diocese in Sonoma County Superior Court by Tracy resident Christopher Griego, as Lake County News has reported.

Oswald had been a chaplain for Lakeport Police and the Lake County Sheriff's Office and had been released from those duties after the first allegations were made.

At that time, Oswald – who had served as parish priest for 20 years – vehemently denied the allegations both to the diocese and in a Lake County News interview. The Vietnam veteran and former police officer had said he wanted his day in court to defend his reputation.

Griego, who alleged Oswald had abused him between 1988 and 1995, originally had sought $2.5 million in the case, which later was joined by another plaintiff. The diocese settled that case before trial in 2009 for $1.3 million.

Daley said there is no demand for a specified dollar amount in this latest suit, which accuses the diocese and the parish of failing to protect the plaintiff – and all children – from Oswald. Daley said they plan on leaving the final award up to a jury to decide.

The teenage plaintiff began discussing the alleged abuse with his family during the past year, said Daley. He said Oswald's death had removed the boy's fear of reprisal.

The complaint alleges that the diocese knew that Oswald was a danger to children. Daley said the diocese has “a very long history” of employing priests accused of sexual abuse, dating back to the 1970s. He said he's personally tallied more than a dozens priests and three bishops involved in abuse since that time.

“They have no excuse in terms of not knowing what to look for,” he said.

Daley said Oswald wasn't put on leave until “months and months” after the allegations involved in the Griego case surfaced, and was allowed to continue with his duties of hearing confessions from minors, overseeing altar servers, running youth programs, counseling programs and church-sponsored trips and events.

It's alleged that the abuse of John JC Doe began sometime around 2007 and lasted for a one-year period, beginning with Oswald traveling to the boy's home under the guise of providing spiritual guidance and support to his family.

The suit alleges that the sexual abuse began after Oswald hired the boy to wash his motor coach, which was parked in front of Oswald’s Lakeport home.

Oswald allegedly invited the boy to come inside his home, where he would sexually abuse and harass him. The suit accuses Oswald of giving the alleged victim alcohol and groping him. Abuse also is alleged to have taken place inside the back office at St. Mary Immaculate.

Daley said that because the plaintiff is a minor, he must sue for a guardian ad litem, with those papers expected to be signed soon by the court. The diocese can then be served with the papers and discovery can began 15 days later.

“We intend to start the discovery process immediately,” said Daley.

He said there is no standard length of time for such cases, that he expects this case could go to trial within the next two years.

All the previous cases against Oswald have settled before trial. Daley said in reference to this current litigation, “We intend to try the case,” although he acknowledged sometimes it's in the plaintiff's best interest to settle beforehand.

Daley said his firm's first goal in dealing with priest sex abuse cases is to achieve healing for clients, and then to effectuate some sort of change within the diocese and the Catholic Church to protect children.

He added, “We're hopeful that this suit, as other suits in the past have, will prompt some sort of police investigation.”

Daley suggested such an investigation would look at whether anyone within the diocese was a mandated reported.

“These are all questions we can't answer right now,” Daley said.

The legal actions against Oswald have so far not involved a criminal component, but have been handled in civil court.

In 2008, local law enforcement officials told Lake County News that they had never received any criminal complaint against Oswald and so hadn't pursued criminal case investigations against him at that point.

Lakeport Police Chief Brad Rasmussen said Wednesday that he was unaware of any reports involving allegations of Oswald abusing minors being submitted to his agency within the last three years.

“We definitely haven't had any reports or allegations in the past year,” he said, which is the time period when John JC Doe began discussing the allegations with his family, according to Daley.

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