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Dioceses Expect Flood of Lawsuits


Dec 31, 2002 | Mercury News

A wave of lawsuits will start hitting Roman Catholic dioceses in the Bay Area this week, as a new state law temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on claims for decades-old cases of sexual abuse.

Attorneys for two men who say they were molested by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard, former pastor at St. Martin of Tours Parish in San Jose, have scheduled a news conference this morning to announce they are filing suit on Thursday the first day they are eligible to do so under the new law.

The same attorneys also represent two men who plan lawsuits alleging they were molested years ago by Stephen Kiesle, a former priest already charged with sexually abusing young boys in the rectory of a Union City church. One of the men will hold a news conference Thursday to discuss his claim of abuse for the first time.

``We know that there are going to be cases coming forward, and we will deal with them on a case-by-case basis,'' said Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor for the Oakland diocese. ``I'm not expecting any new cases involving priests that we don't know about. There may be new allegations, but we probably already know about the individual.''

The Legislature this year enacted a law that gives victims of sexual abuse a new opportunity to sue churches or other institutions that they believe should be held responsible for allowing such abuse to occur. The law creates a 12-month window in which the statute of limitations for old cases is effectively suspended.

Earlier this month, Catholic dioceses across the state warned parishioners that the flood of lawsuits could cause financial problems for the church.

More claims expected

An unknown number of abuse victims many of them aided by a network of attorneys who are coordinating their efforts are expected to bring claims under the new law. Their attorneys acknowledged they are hoping that publicity will encourage more victims to come forward.

``There clearly are far more survivors of serious childhood sexual abuse by priests than anyone ever believed,'' said Rick Simons, a Hayward attorney who is handling a number of Bay Area cases.

Simons and Stockton attorneys David and Larry Drivon said they currently represent seven men who were molested by Pritchard. That includes two who filed suit last summer and the two more expected to file suit on Thursday. The attorneys said additional lawsuits will be filed in coming weeks.

A dozen former students told the Mercury News last spring that Pritchard had fondled them when they were boys, during the 1970s at the St. Martin of Tours parish school. Since then, other men have come forward with similar stories.

The St. Martin lawsuits will be filed against the San Francisco archdiocese because it was responsible for all Catholic churches in San Jose during the time Pritchard was at St. Martin, Simons said. A separate San Jose diocese was established in 1981.

A spokesman for the San Francisco archdiocese could not be reached for comment Monday. A spokesman at the San Jose diocese declined comment.

When the former St. Martin students came forward in the spring, they said they had no interest in seeking monetary compensation. But since then, some have expressed frustration with the diocese's response to their complaints.

Dennis Kavanaugh, a 44-year-old St. Martin graduate who is one of the two men who will file suit Thursday, said monetary compensation is only part of the reason he is suing. Kavanaugh, who said Pritchard touched him inappropriately more than once, said he hopes his lawsuit will encourage other victims to come forward and get help.

Kiesle, who lives in Pinole, was arrested by Fremont police in May and charged with sexually abusing three young girls decades ago. Police said the molestations occurred during the late 1960s and early '70s at Fremont's Santa Paula Church and a family home.

In 1978, Kiesle had been accused of molesting five boys ages 11 to 13. Two boys told police they were undressed, tied up and molested in the rectory of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Union City. Kiesle was removed from the ministry and defrocked by the Oakland diocese that year. Court records show that Kiesle was charged with lewd conduct at that time and sentenced to three years' probation.

Simons is now representing two male victims who say they were also molested by Kiesle and will file suit against the Oakland diocese.

In early December, Catholics across the state were warned of the raft of lawsuits during Mass, when local priests read a letter from the California Catholic Conference of Bishops. The letter explained to parishioners that many cases were old but could result in financial fallout.

``The Catholic Church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with `deep pockets,' '' the bishops' letter said. ``In reality, the vast majority of Catholic assets belong to the people of our parishes, schools, charities and other institutions.''

Trauma lasts years

Under previous law, sexual-abuse victims in most instances had to file lawsuits by the time they turned 26. But experts say that many victims do not discuss their abuse, much less seek legal advice, until they are much older. Even then, it often takes years of anguish to decide to bring legal action, if at all.

``The overwhelming majority of survivors in our organization have never sued and don't want to sue,'' said David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ``People still underestimate how traumatic it is for victims to talk about all of this. The legal process can be a daunting one, and many victims desperately want to put this behind them.''

But some victims say they can't do that yet. Katherine K. Freberg, an attorney in Irvine, is working on dozens of cases in Los Angeles and Orange County.

``I currently have 76 clients, and most will be filing in January,'' Freberg said. ``The list literally grows every day, and most of the people have never come forward before. They are doing it now because they've read about the new law. The new statute has given them hope.''

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