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California Church Braces For Lawsuits

Alleged Victims of Abuse Say They Want Closure

Jan 17, 2003 | AP It's been two decades since Carlos Perez-Castillo said he was molested by a Roman Catholic priest. During those years, the former swimmer with Olympic aspirations dropped out of high school, had careless sex "to prove I was a guy" and suffered a series of failed marriages.

"A lot of people call themselves survivors. I don't," he said. "I still think of myself as a victim. I am surviving, but I don't think I survived this yet."

Now, however, a California law that took effect Jan. 1 has temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for lawsuits claiming sex abuse giving Perez-Castillo, 37, the chance to sue the church. The law could affect hundreds, or even thousands, of other alleged victims and shift the focus of the nationwide abuse scandal from Boston to California.

An estimated 400 lawsuits are being prepared under the law. Some already have been filed.

Plaintiffs' lawyers predict church documents released during court proceedings or exposed in legal settlements could tarnish the image of Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as other bishops and priests in California. It also could lead to millions of dollars in legal settlements.

"What this law will do is make California, and especially Los Angeles, the epicenter," said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and author of "A Secret World," a 25-year study on celibacy in the priesthood.

Sipe has been called as an expert witness in more than 95 civil suits alleging sexual abuse by priests. He believes the financial impact of the law could ultimately reach $500 million, basing that estimate on conversations with plaintiffs and lawyers.

Across the state, lawyers, victims, church officials and judges are struggling to decide how to cope with the expected flood of lawsuits. Last month, California's bishops distributed a statement to parishioners warning that the lawsuits could force dioceses to cut key educational and social services.

Under the law, sex abuse victims have until the end of this year to sue the employers of molesters who did nothing to stop the criminal conduct of their employees. Previously, victims had until their 26th birthday or three years after discovering that their emotional problems were linked to molestation to sue.

In one of the latest developments, an effort is under way to consolidate and possibly settle hundreds of the lawsuits before a single Southern California judge.

Several plaintiffs' lawyers said that if they eventually reach settlements, they will not agree to keep church files secret.

"We will never sign confidentiality settlement agreements," said Katherine Freberg, an Irvine attorney who represents Perez-Castillo and 80 other alleged victims. "This process is far too important for millions of Catholics and non-Catholics for this to be kept secret."

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in December under intense public pressure after unsealed court documents revealed that he and other church administrators had protected clergy accused of molestation.

Larry Drivon, a lawyer who helped write the California bill to extend the statute of limitations, predicts Mahony could face similar scrutiny if church records are made public in legal proceedings.

Drivon sued the Diocese of Stockton in 1999 and won a $30 million verdict for two brothers who claimed they were molested by the Rev. Oliver O'Grady. The award was later reduced to $13 million.

Mahony took the stand in that case, testifying that while he was bishop there from 1980 to 1985, he had no idea that O'Grady was an abuser. Three subordinates later contradicted Mahony.

The cardinal has repeatedly offered public apologies to victims and their families for any abuse that occurred.

"Los Angeles is nothing like Boston," archdiocese spokes-man Tod Tamberg said. "We have had a zero-tolerance policy since 1992. We believe we have been very effective in removing abusers from ministry once they have been identified."

In Los Angeles, home to 5 million Catholics, the scandal already has led to the arrest of six former priests. Investigations of others continue.

John Manly, a lawyer who represents about 35 alleged sex abuse victims in California, described the ordeal suffered by his clients as an "emotional and spiritual holocaust." Legal settlements with the promise of accountability offer a chance for healing, he said.

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