Door Kept Open for Priest-Sex Lawsuits

By Jean Guccione
Los Angeles Times
December 23, 2005

A federal judge Thursday upheld the constitutionality of a California law that opened courthouse doors to more than 1,000 people who sued the Roman Catholic Church for allegedly failing to protect them from predator priests.

U.S. District Court Judge William Q. Hayes in San Diego became the second judge in California to reject arguments that the law illegally interferes with the Catholic Church's religious practices.

"The failure to supervise or negligent hiring of a person that commits sexual assault does not implicate or effect any religious belief, opinion or practice," Hayes wrote.

The ruling arises from a negligence suit brought by a woman who alleged that she was repeatedly raped and sexually abused by a priest at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Escondido beginning when she was 12. Her alleged abuser, Father Victor Uboldi, is dead.

She is suing the Sisters of the Precious Blood, the religious order of nuns who once ran the school.

The San Diego diocese asked the court to overturn the law.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan, who represents the diocese, said the church did not expect to win at trial but is "strongly considering an appeal."

The stakes are high. If an appellate court strikes down the statute, all of the lawsuits now pending against the Catholic Church in California could be thrown out without any compensation to alleged victims.

Such a threat has played a role in settlement negotiations, said Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, liaison counsel for the more than 560 claims now pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In evaluating the potential settlement value of a case, church lawyers will try to pay out less money on the claims based on the gamble that the law might later be overturned, he said.

Boucher criticized Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other church leaders for trying to have it both ways.

They want the law declared unconstitutional, ending all potential liability against the church, he said. Yet at the same time, church leaders are publicly saying that they hope to resolve claims without a protracted legal fight, he said.

Boucher accused Mahony of being "the puppet master, the one pulling the strings" that made the constitutional challenge possible.

After all, Hennigan, Mahony's lead counsel in the clergy sexual abuse cases, has stepped up to represent the San Diego diocese in this case.

Hennigan said his bills are being paid by insurers.

Mahony and all other bishops in California support the San Diego diocese's decision to try to overturn the law, Hennigan said.

Yet, despite those efforts, Mahony "is committed to the resolution of all the cases by settlement, no matter what the outcome of this challenge," Hennigan said. "We sincerely hope that all of these cases are settled before we get the final answer to this important question."

The judge in San Diego rejected all of the church's legal arguments.

He found that the law violates no religious freedoms nor threatens the church's due-process rights.

Last year, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sabraw ruled that state lawmakers did not exceed their authority when they temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases.


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