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Catholics Hear Lawsuit Warning

Dec 9, 2002 | Sacramento Bee

Chita Afaga, like many around the state, had a mixed opinion of a letter from California's Catholic bishops. The bishops wrote that the church is expecting another rush of lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by priests after legislators lifted the statute of limitations for those claims through the end of next year.

Afaga, who heard the letter read Sunday at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Modesto, said she supported restitution for victims, but questioned the legal system's effectiveness in handling decades-old cases.

"How can you really right a wrong when you don't know what happened, when there's really no witnesses?" Afaga said. "How could you prove it? It's going to be hard."

The bishops were responding to a new law, which goes into effect in January, that will waive the statute of limitations for one year in molestation cases against churches. People whose lawsuits were previously dismissed also will be allowed to refile.

"We anticipate that new lawsuits, some involving very old allegations, will be filed against dioceses in California," the bishops wrote.

The one-page letter, containing the salutation "Dear brothers and sisters," was read at hundreds of Catholic churches across the state.

"This is a difficult time for the church. We need to continue to pray for the church as well as for the victims of sexual abuse," said the Rev. James Murphy, rector of Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, after the letter was read by a church member.

"Some of the lawsuits may involve the revival of already settled cases and some may involve alleged perpetrators and witnesses long since dead," the letter warned.

The bishops say the church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation "with deep pockets." And they pointed out that the "the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities, and other institutions."

At St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Merced, the Rev. Jean-Michael Lastiri read the letter at the end of the 9 a.m. Mass Sunday and warned of the harm the anticipated flood of lawsuits could do to the churches in California. He encouraged parish-ioners to write to legislators if they'd like to take a stand on the new law.

But he also suggested parishioners focus on the positive, and drew applause from the congregation as he directed them to the various fund-raising sales going on after the service.

"When you walk outside, it's pretty much a mall out there," he said. "The church is alive and well."

The bishops' letter also drew a strong reaction from one of the attorneys who helped draft the law.

"This is a blatant attempt to blame the victim and their attempts to get recovery for what happened," said Stockton attorney Laurence E. Drivon, who has won millions of dollars in sex-abuse claims against the church.

Some churchgoers agreed with the bishops, saying it was time for church officials to fight back. Others question some of the statements in the letter.

Barbra Ayala, a parishioner at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, said she agreed with the bishops.

"I think going back 20 years is ridiculous," Ayala said. "Twenty years ago, I was not the person I am today. These priests may be extremely sorry for what they've done and gone to confession."

Ayala said unless priests suspected of abusing children were still working with youths, it was unnecessary to take legal action.

"Most of the times it's old priests who are dying," she said.

Some said the church would emerge from the scandal in a strong position.

Seven teen-age parishioners from St. Stanislaus Catholic Church attended a meeting for prospective priests Sunday, significantly more than the two or three teens who had attended past meetings, Ayala said.

"Families are praying for people to be in the priesthood because we need good priests," Ayala said. "We need to take care of this and then move on."


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