Diocese Discusses Abuse Cases

By Dan Laidman
Monterey County Herald
January 28, 2004

In the midst of a tour of Central Coast churches to talk about sexual misconduct cases, the Diocese of Monterey says it is currently defending itself against seven such lawsuits and that it recently settled at least one other for more than $700,000.

Many of the suits were filed under a California law that suspended the statute of limitations on child molestation cases for the duration of 2003. The timing provoked Bishop Sylvester Ryan to schedule this week's speeches to priests, parishioners and other interested parties.

"Now's a natural time, after the dust has settled," said Kevin Drabinski, spokesman for the diocese.

The diocese released a report laying out seven pending lawsuits and revealing that the organization settled a case this month for $760,000.

That lawsuit alleged that Michael McDonald, a priest who died in 1971, molested a boy who attended St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Salinas in the 1960s. The priest allegedly sexually abused the boy more than 100 times between 1964 and 1967, starting when he was 10 years old.

The alleged victim, who is not named in court records, sued the diocese last summer. He accused the diocese of negligently failing to supervise McDonald or to warn the man and his family about the priest.

The diocese report does not admit liability but says settling the case "was in the best interests of the Diocese of Monterey and of the individual making the claim."

It says the diocese paid the $760,000 with reserve funds and insurance money.

The plaintiff's attorney declined to comment on the settlement.

The diocese has paid a total of $45,000 to settle other cases relating to "clerical misconduct involving children" that occurred between 1967, when the Monterey and Fresno dioceses split, and June 2002, said Drabinski. However, it is unclear which cases that figure includes or even how many.

Drabinski had no comment on any further settlements.

2002 investigation A 2002 Herald investigation uncovered four civil cases in which Diocese of Monterey priests were accused of sexual misconduct in the past 25 years. All were apparently settled, although the attorneys involved have not specified dollar amounts, some citing confidentiality agreements.

Meanwhile, the diocese says it is defending itself against seven current lawsuits. They include: * A 44-year-old man's case alleging that the Rev. Alberto Battagliola, who died in 1977, molested him when he was a 14-year-old altar boy in San Luis Obispo in 1974.

* A Salinas man's lawsuit stemming from alleged abuse perpetrated by two Arizona-based men who were visiting priests at Christ the King Church from 1989 to 1996. The diocese says it has no record of one of the accused priests, the Rev. Juan Guillen, and that it transferred the other one, the Rev. John Velez, when it learned of the allegations in 1991.

* A case filed in Fresno County accusing the Rev. Stuart Campbell, a priest who died in 1986, of abuse from 1956 to 1959, before the Diocese of Monterey split off.

* A case with seven plaintiffs accusing Rev. Patrick McHugh, who died in 1979, of molestation in Felton between 1961 and 1968.

* Another Fresno County-based case alleging abuse by the Rev. Joseph Pacheco, who died in 1992, at parishes in Tulare and Merced in the 1960s.

* A case in which the plaintiff alleges abuse by an unknown Jesuit priest in Santa Cruz in the 1950s.

* A Monterey woman's lawsuit claiming the diocese failed to stop Vincent Dwyer, a Trappist monk, from seducing her while she was a student at Santa Catalina School in 1969.

The diocese "intends to follow appropriate legal steps to defend itself while at the same time being sensitive to the victim(s)' needs," the report says. "In the weeks and months to come, we may find that other cases have been filed against the Diocese of Monterey."

The report also notes that as far as Bishop Ryan knows, no priest currently operating within the diocese has a "credible claim of sexual misconduct against him."

Cases may be consolidated On Monday, lawyers for the diocese asked the State Judicial Council to consolidate all of the pending lawsuits in the same courtroom.

Diocese of Monterey attorney Susan Mayer said in a statement that it was a procedural move aimed at streamlining the process by having one judge handle the cases.

"We think this is a key step in moving these cases forward and obtaining a just outcome for all parties involved," Mayer said.

Bishop Ryan started the series of visits in Pismo Beach on Monday. He told the audience of Catholics gathered at St. Paul the Apostle Church that sexual misconduct-related payouts would not cut into core diocese functions like parishes or schools. He spoke Tuesday night in Aptos. There is an event tonight in Seaside and Thursday in Salinas.

The series is a continuation of sexual misconduct-themed town hall meetings that Ryan held in 2002, Drabinski said. He denied that the outreach effort was sparked by financial pressure.

"We haven't seen a downturn in donations that we can relate to the sexual abuse issues that are facing the broader church," he said.

In response to those broader issues, which erupted nationwide in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops conducted an audit of every diocese in the country and released the results earlier this month. The audit, which was criticized by the major abuse survivors group for being insufficiently independent, recommended that the Diocese of Monterey reach out to the public through secular media, designate a single person to take abuse complaints, present all clergy abuse complaints to a review board and establish new written policies.

All the recommendations were "immediately implemented," Drabinski said.

Meanwhile, the audit commended the diocese for its "innovative and personalized" Safe Environment Program.

The sweeping program sets a code of conduct for employees and includes cooperation with law enforcement agencies and background checks of personnel who work with children.

Dan Laidman can be reached at 646-4346.


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