Advocate for the abused: Joe George stood up against the church to protect the vulnerable
By Marcos Breton
April 29, 2020
Joe George died last week and if you don’t know who Joe George was, you should.
For more than 30 years in Sacramento, George was a fierce lawyer who had the intellect to make obscene amounts of money in corporate law but chose instead to represent clients who had been sexually abused by people they trusted.
George’s opponents in court were often powerful individuals from powerful institutions who had the community standing and popularity to sweep their unspeakable transgressions under the rug until Joe George intervened.
The Catholic Church, or any kind of church from any denomination. The Boy Scouts of America. A school district employing a child predator, a therapist who abused a patient, or an institution that violated mandatory reporting requirements – you were in big trouble if you got a call from George.
“He was a force of nature,” said Jennifer Roach, who was abused by a youth pastor at her Protestant church in Modesto and who had given up on finding justice until George convinced her that she could.
“In court he could be cranky and cantankerous except when he talked to his victim clients, she said. “Then he would be gentle and caring. He would never give an inch in court and then he would have the ability to listen for as long as that victim needed.”
George was 68 when he died on April 22 from complications of a stroke, according to his family. COVID-19 was not a factor in his death, his family said.
The Philadelphia-born litigator had retained his East Coast toughness despite spending his final 35 or so years living and working in Sacramento, where he set up practice in 1986.
Armed with a doctorate in psychology from Vanderbilt, George served as a psychologist in the U.S. Air Force at Travis Air Force base. While at Travis, he obtained his law degree from McGeorge and, suddenly, a special kind of litigator was born. George had the clinical understanding and empathy for victims and the legal training to gain justice for them in courts of law.
“He had the capacity to understand and the emotional guts to be there when it was hard,” said his son, Joe George Jr. “Dad was one of those special people who dedicated his life to helping others.”
George won often and won big, sometimes garnering large crowds of media after securing justice for vulnerable clients when other lawyers couldn’t. One of his biggest wins was in 2005, when George represented 33 plaintiffs who settled for $35 million with the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.
As my dear former colleague, the late Jennifer Garza, wrote in The Bee on the day of George’s big 2005 win: “George has worked on the cases with an almost religious devotion. He says he sold his assets, went heavily into debt to finance the lawsuits and continued working even after a near-fatal cycling accident.”
George was not physically imposing, was slight of build and thin with close-cropped hair. He eschewed extravagant suits in favor of plain blue dress shirts and sensible slacks. When he was photographed for a Bee story years ago, his expression was both determined and a little haunted.
He was both, say those who knew him.
“I always had the feeling that Joe worked all the time,” Roach said. “I would get emails from him on Saturday nights. He spent his life trying to understand people who had been so mistreated. He wanted to make up for that. It’s like he would say, ‘I’m going to give you all this energy and attention that should been yours all along.’”
His son said nothing specific in his past drove George to this type of law. But as his legal and academic career evolved, George was driven to the insidious power dynamic of vulnerable people being preyed upon by a “respected” and “trusted” adult. These cases moved George so deeply, litigating them became his life.
In 2019, George teamed with the Sacramento law firm Dreyer, Babich, Buccola, Wood, and Campora to earn a $12.5 million settlement from the Sacramento City Unified School District. A young girl was repeatedly molested by an after-school aide at Mark Twain Elementary in 2015, according to the suit.
“The saddest stories are of the Hispanic males,” George said in an interview on April 30 last year. “It’s a shame thing, a bravado thing. A lot of these are kids of poor farm workers whose parents are honored and thrilled when the priest takes an interest in their son. They never think twice about letting their son sleep in the rectory.”
When I spoke to him, George’s Philly chutzpah came out of him like a mighty torrent when discussing his opponents. “There is a lot of butt-covering, posturing and marketing,” he said. Last December, George filed suit against Catholic Church leaders in Stockton, while representing a now-grown man allegedly molested by Rev. Ferdinand Villalobos, a popular Catholic priest.
In 2005, George gave The Bee insight into his legal motivations: “I have a special place in my heart for the faith and the priests I interacted with as a kid growing up in Philadelphia. The overwhelming majority do tremendous work... But I’m very disillusioned with the church as an institution. They should have done something about this a long time ago, and didn’t.”
For George, it was always about the institution that shielded the abuse. In 2018, he read about Roach’s case in a Modesto Bee story by Garth Stapley.
George called her to ask if she wanted a lawyer. As a teenager in the 1980s, Roach had been sexually abused by a youth pastor in a prominent Modesto church formerly known as First Baptist Church. It’s now known as CrossPoint Church.
Roach was 14 when the abuse began. Her father had just died in a car accident. Her mother was distraught and so she was allowed to live with the youth pastor and his wife. The pastor was going to aid a hurting family by opening his home to a grieving 14-year-old. In truth, it was a classic case of abuse: The abuser identified a vulnerable target who had just suffered a huge emotional loss and whose family was in a vulnerable state as well.
“It was grooming,” Roach said. “His wife worked full time and then I would come home.”
The abuse went on for three years.
“In the short term, it was terrible for my life,” she said.
This abuse ruined what should have been exciting final years of high school. “I went to Modesto Junior College when I was 18 and I flunked out of every class because I was depressed. My education was seriously delayed and that has had lifelong financial consequences.”
Roach said she told church leaders who asked her abuser, Brad Tebbutt, if the allegations were true. To her surprise, he confessed. This was in 1989. But she said church leaders handled it by informing Tebbutt’s wife and telling her that was punishment enough.
The authorities were never called and years went by. The few times she asked a lawyer if she had any case she was told, no, because a seven-year statute of limitations had passed.
Before AB 218 was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, opening a three-year “look-back window” for old abuse cases, George pursued justice for Roach. How did he do this last year? The statute of limitations was up and AB 218 did not go into effect until January this year.
As the Modesto Bee reported: “George argued that California’s insurance law requires victims be warned in writing of applicable statutes of limitation.” The church didn’t and George won a $267,000 settlement for Roach.
Roach now lives in the Pacific Northwest. She is married with a family and has her practice as a mental health therapist.
“One of the best lessons I’ve learned from Joe’s life is to get as much education and standing as you can and use it to lift up people who are vulnerable,” she said. “That’s the most important lesson of his life.”
George’s family said it has no immediate plans for a memorial service given the COVID-19 physical distancing requirements. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to two of George’s favorite causes: The Zero Abuse Project, https://www.zeroabuseproject.org. And The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP: https://www.snapnetwork.org.