New California Law Brings New Lawsuits against Sonoma Church

By Anne Ward Ernst
Index Tribune
December 30, 2019

Press conference next to St. Francis Solano Catholic Church on Wednesday, 17 April.(Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

Three separate childhood sex assault lawsuits filed last week against the Catholic Church by four men and two women include naming a former priest at St. Francis Solano Catholic Church in Sonoma as an abuser.

Now adults, all the accusers were children when they allege they were molested by priests. All but one accuser is choosing to remain anonymous. The one named accuser, Stan Sloan, alleges abuse in Napa County, where he lived.

A new California law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October which goes into effect Jan. 1 extends the statute of limitations for when a claim can be filed. Assembly Bill 218 gives adult survivors who realize they have suffered psychological injury or illness five years to sue from the time they discover their abuse, or the age of 40, whichever is later. The current law requires survivors to file suit by the age of 26, or within three years of recognizing their suffering caused by childhood sexual assault.

Fifteen states have expanded their “lookback” windows over the last couple of years. Sacramento attorney Joseph George, who filed the three new lawsuits and has represented several adults in similar cases, said churches may think they’ve already gone through the bulk of lawsuits against clergy starting in the 1980s.

“I think this will open up even more,” he said.

A provision in the new California law allows plaintiffs to collect triple the damages if they can provide proof of a cover-up, which is indicated in the court filings of the three new complaints filed by George on behalf of his clients.

The plaintiff in the St. Francis Solano case – called John Doe 11, now 33, in the complaint – was born in 1986 and was 14 when he alleges Father Francis Xavier Ochoa sexually abused him in the parish rectory.

The lawsuit, filed against the Diocese of Santa Rosa and St. Francis Solano, seeks damages for negligent supervision and/or retention of an employee; negligent supervision of a minor, and failure to report childhood sexual abuse.

The Diocese of Santa Rosa has paid out about $33 million in legal settlements to survivors, with about a third of the payments covered by insurance, according to reports.

Ochoa fled Sonoma to Mexico in 2006 after he was charged with 10 felony child sex abuse counts, and admitted to a fellow priest that he sexually abused a 12-year-old altar boy. The boy alleged that Ochoa paid him $100 to do a strip tease dance for him and remove all his clothes.

Ochoa was also charged with molesting two teenage boys a decade before that when he lived in Cotati. He died on Nov. 30, 2009 of lung cancer in Zapopan, Jalisco, Mexico at the age of 71, according to a report.

The priests in the other two suits – Father Donald Kimball and Father Patrick Gleeson – are also dead, and were sued before and listed as “credibly accused” by church officials on the Diocese website.

Calls to the Diocese of Santa Rosa were not returned by press time.

The current complaint outlines an alleged pattern of behavior by Ochoa’s superiors who turned a blind eye to Ochoa’s “propensities to commit acts of childhood sexual abuse.” Ochoa was under the direct supervision of Bishop John Steinbock, Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, and Bishop Daniel Walsh at various times.

Both Steinbock and Ziemann were accused of their own sexual misconduct, and Walsh faced accusations of harboring a pedophile, and delayed reporting Ochoa to authorities, which allowed Ochoa time to flee to Mexico.

Steinbock is alleged to have had knowledge in 1991 that Ochoa “kissed an altar boy on the lips in Napa,” and that Ochoa was an alcohol abuser. The complaint said that Ziemann asked Ochoa in 1996 to get substance abuse counseling, and in 1999 San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada sent Ochoa to Guadalajara, Mexico for an alcohol treatment program.

Born in Guadalajara, Ochoa’s responsibilities included ministering to the Spanish-speaking congregation, and he was well-regarded in the community. He befriended youth and their families, and the complaint alleges he abused their trust.

George said Ochoa “had his way with Hispanic families” and would give gifts to win affection and confidence.

George, who is the attorney for all six plaintiffs and is also a psychologist, said in a press release: “It’s an honor to help these brave victims. I hope their courage will inspire others who are suffering because of childhood trauma anywhere – in schools, camps, churches, sports programs – to step forward and start healing.”

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