Alleged Victim Sues Diocese

Monterey County Herald
January 1, 2004

VICTORIA MANLEY — A Monterey woman who previously settled out-of-court with a priest who allegedly molested her more than 30 years ago has filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Monterey.

Sarah Wilgress was a high school sophomore at Santa Catalina School when she met Vincent Dwyer, then a 40-year-old Trappist monk from Massachusetts who was leading a spiritual retreat. Wilgress, now 50, has since confronted Dwyer and reached an out-of-court settlement with his abbey for $75,000 in 1995.

But the pair's 12-year on-again, off-again affair could have and should have been prevented by the protection of the diocese, according to a suit filed Dec. 19 in Monterey County Superior Court.

Wilgress on Wednesday deferred comment to her San Diego attorneys, who were unavailable.

The suit is one of hundreds of molestation-related lawsuits filed this year in California against the Roman Catholic church. For plaintiffs claiming they were molested in past years, Wednesday was the deadline to file suits under a state law that lifted for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits. Previously, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthdays or three years after discovery of emotional problems linked to molestation.

Other than Wilgress' new action, no recent suits had been filed against the Diocese of Monterey in Monterey or San Luis Obispo counties. No information was available Wednesday on any suits elsewhere within the diocese, which also takes in Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

In her suit, Wilgress claims that the diocese and Santa Catalina School were negligent in failing to protect her from Dwyer. She also claims the institutions conspired against her to protect Dwyer. Representatives of the school and the diocese could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

The diocese and school "had a duty to protect the minor (Wilgress) when she was entrusted to their care" by her parents, according to the suit. It also states that they "should have known of (Dwyer's) dangerous and exploitive propensities."

The two met in spring 1969 after Wilgress, then 15, confided in a nun about her feelings of fatherlessness. The nun suggested she meet with Dwyer.

Wilgress and Dwyer began writing each other, and their relationship became physical within a year. Their affair caused her to be "depressed and confused," even to drop out of high school her senior year, according to the lawsuit.

The pair maintained a connection for 13 years, even traveling as far as London in order to spend nights together.

It ended shortly after October 1981, after the pair spent a weekend together in New York. After she returned from the trip, Wilgress began to feel confused and depressed, according to an interview with The Herald in September 2002.

In 1991, a thoroughly disillusioned Wilgress wrote to Dwyer in a letter she called "the letter of confrontation," and suggested that he "examine some of your actions."

Defendants in her lawsuit also include the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance.

The case of Wilgress and Dwyer was one of nine that the Diocese of Monterey turned over to the Monterey County District Attorney's Office for review in 2002. Prosecutors elected not to file criminal charges, for a variety or reasons.

The diocese has settled an unknown number of claims out of court but remains a defendant in several other cases.

Last June, a Salinas man sued the dioceses of Monterey and Tucson, Arizona, over sexual abuse he says he suffered for years at the hands of two Arizona-based priests. The man, now in his early 20s and listed only as John Doe in the lawsuit, says he was molested at Christ the King Church in Salinas and at two churches in Arizona from 1989 to 1996.

The men who molested him, the suit claims, were the Rev. John Velez and the Rev. Juan Guillen, both of whom allegedly celebrated Mass as visiting priests at Christ the King.

In March, a San Luis Obispo man sued the diocese, alleging it did nothing to stop a priest from molesting him when he was an altar boy in the early 1970s.

The 44-year-old man, listed only as "John Doe" in the lawsuit, claims that the Rev. Orlando Battagliola, who died around 1977, sexually abused him at Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa when the boy was in the ninth grade.

The suit, filed in March in Monterey County Superior Court, asks for unspecified damages.

In February, Santa Cruz County sheriff's spokesman Kim Allyn and three others sued the diocese for $10 million. They claim the Rev. Patrick McHugh, who died more than 20 years ago, molested them while they served under him as altar boys.


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