Judge in Key Abuse Case Rules on Church's Duty

By Henry K. Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
August 26, 2004

An Alameda County judge heard sharply conflicting arguments Wednesday as to whether Roman Catholic Church leaders negligently allowed child abuse by a now-deceased priest decades ago.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw issued a tentative ruling that showed he was still grappling with the case of the late Rev. Arthur Ribeiro, who is accused of molesting Catholic school boys in Concord in the 1960s.

Sabraw promised to issue a final ruling by Sept. 3 in a test case that will signal the fate of scores of child-abuse lawsuits against Catholic Churches from Santa Rosa to Monterey.

The judge is coordinating legal action in the "Clergy III" cases -- more than 150 Northern California lawsuits made possible by a state law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations during the year 2003 for adults seeking damages for decades-old child abuse claims.

Clergy I and Clergy II represent hundreds of similar claims in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The case involving Ribeiro, accused of molesting boys at Queen of All Saints Church in Concord, has been fraught with legal uncertainties. On July 15, Sabraw ruled that the case could proceed to a jury trial. But 10 days later, he reversed himself.

Sabraw's tentative ruling and arguments Wednesday further proved the complexity of the case.

Attorneys haggled over whether witnesses' accounts of schoolboys being led into the Concord rectory by a housekeeper -- and taken into the priest's bedroom -- meant that the church was "on notice" of unlawful sexual conduct.

In his tentative ruling, the judge wrote that agents and employees of the church had a responsibility to report "unlawful sexual conduct involving children."

"The court likens the situation to an employee at the concession stand at a theater who may have no responsibility to check fire extinguishers and exit signs but who is expected to yell 'Fire!' in the event of a fire," Sabraw wrote.

But Stephen McFeely, a Los Angeles attorney representing the Catholic Diocese of Oakland, dismissed that analogy, saying that simply seeing a child being led into a room doesn't constitute proof of sexual abuse.

"That's not fire, it's smoke," McFeely said.

Attorney Paul Gaspari, representing the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said the housekeeper, variously described as "mythical" and "frumpy" by church attorneys, was also dead.

But Sabraw, in his tentative ruling, said the church "can muster evidence to present a defense even though many of the key witnesses are dead."

Richard Simons, an attorney for the alleged victims, said of Ribeiro, "We know how he counsels children, and it involves sexual abuse."

Citing declarations by Diocese of Oakland officials that they first learned about Ribeiro in 1995, five years before he died, Simons said, "There's no evidence anywhere that they even did any investigation or even cared about the victims."


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