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Church Abuse Victims Awarded $1.9 Million

Apr 14, 2005 | CONTRA COSTA TIMES A jury Wednesday awarded $1.93 million in damages to two former Antioch altar boys who were sexually abused by a priest decades ago.

The jury of 10 women and two men, five of whom identify themselves as Catholic, awarded $180,000 in compensatory damages to Tom Thatcher and $875,000 to Robert Thatcher. That number was much less than the $3 million Simons sought for Tom and $6 million for Robert. Church lawyer Allen Ruby said the Diocese thought reasonable compensation was due up to $800,000.

The jury also awarded Robert Thatcher $875,000 in punitive damages. In closing remarks, Simons told jurors Tuesday that Robert deserved $18 million.

Tom Thatcher, 33, admits his first reaction was that the jury award was low. But, as his brother said, the money was not the issue.

"We had our shot, we had our day in court and the jury did the best that they thought they could."

Robert Thatcher said his award for punitive damages exposed the "heinous crimes that were allowed to be perpetuated by the Diocese of Oakland." The jury agreed with his claim that church leaders were aware of Father Robert Ponciroli's behavior but failed to do anything about it.

"This is about a statement for the protection of children and the jury did find that the Diocese acted despicably and found them punitively liable for their conduct," he said outside of the Hayward Hall of Justice.

The Thatchers' suit was one of the more than 150 sex abuse cases confronting Northern California dioceses. The civil lawsuits came about as a result of a 2002 state law that lifted the statute of limitations by one year. The Thatchers' case was one of the first to be heard by a jury.

There are still more than 40 other sexual abuse cases facing the Oakland Diocese.

"I do hope that the Diocese and other dioceses wake up, settle these cases and let these victims move on with their lives because they're sick of sitting in courtrooms," said Robert Thatcher.

The Thatchers say they hope the verdict gives other survivors the power and courage to step forward.

Oakland Diocese spokesman Father Mark Wiesner said the Diocese wants the same thing.

The Diocese admitted it acted negligently before the trial started and agreed that the Thatchers should receive compensatory damages, Wiesner said.

Church lawyers did try to prevent a punitive damage award for Robert Thatcher. The 34-year-old man, who now lives in Arizona, was asking for $18 million in punitive damages, which are intended to punish a defendant financially and prevent further misdeeds from occurring.

The jury also unanimously ruled that a managing agent of the Oakland Bishop, acting on behalf of the Diocese, engaged in "conduct constituting malice or oppression that caused harm to Robert Thatcher." All 12 jurors also agreed that the Diocese had "knowledge of the unfitness" of Ponciroli but employed him "with a knowing disregard of the rights and safety of others before Robert Thatcher's molestation."

"What the case has established is that the Oakland Diocese has, in the past, engaged in policies and practices that the jury found to be malice and oppression of children," Simons said.

The jury broke down by percentage how much blame should be apportioned to the Diocese and to Ponciroli for causing harm to the men. Based on those figures, the Diocese must now pay 60 percent of compensatory damages, and 100 percent of punitive damages, Simons said.

The jury found that 40 percent of the blame should be assigned to Ponciroli. The priest was defrocked in 1995, and now lives in Florida. He did not take the stand.

Throughout the trial, Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron and church lawyers maintained that the Diocese wanted to settle before trial.

He and other church leaders testified and pointed to recent policies and procedures the Diocese adopted to prevent future abuse and ensure that allegations are dealt with swiftly and effectively.

The brothers vividly described for jurors how Ponciroli would summon them up, one by one, to his bedroom at the Antioch rectory for "punishment." The large priest would then tickle them and roll around on the bed with them for up to 30 minutes. Robert Thatcher said the priest also fondled his genitals on three separate occasions, once while in the priest's car.

Tom Thatcher was abused twice.

The Oakland Diocese encompasses parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

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