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Former Reno Bishop to testify in San Diego abuse claim cases

Dec 24, 2005 | A federal judge in San Diego has rejected the Roman Catholic Church's effort to strike down a state law that allows lawsuits by people who claim they were abused by priests long ago.

More than 153 are pending against the San Diego diocese and 560 abuse claims are pending against the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The San Diego diocese had argued the 2002 law illegally interfered with its religious practices.

Former Reno Bishop Phillip Straling is considered a key witness in most of the San Diego cases. A Costa Mesa, Calif.-based attorney handling many of the lawsuits, said Friday that he plans to call Straling to testify on two cases soon.

Straling is not accused of molesting children.

The lawsuits say Straling, while a priest in San Diego and a bishop of San Bernardino, might have known the accused priests were having sex with children, but did nothing to stop them. Many believe he played a part in shuffling abusive priests to new parishes where they had access and sometimes continued to molest children.

When asked about these cases, Straling declined to comment.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Q. Hayes was made public Thursday. "The failure to supervise or negligent hiring of a person that commits sexual assault does not implicate or affect any religious belief, opinion or practice," Hayes wrote.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan, representing the San Diego diocese and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, said the church is "strongly considering an appeal."

The law in question lifted for one year the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse that may have taken place decades ago. It has resulted in hundreds of priest abuse lawsuits throughout California.

But those lawsuits could be thrown out without any compensation to alleged victims if an appellate court struck down the statute that authorizes the cases.

Beverly Hills attorney Raymond P. Boucher, representing alleged abuse victims, said the Los Angeles Archdiocese is using that threat to try to get plaintiffs to settle their claims for lower amounts.

Hennigan said Mahony is committed to settling the claims even though he and all other bishops in California support the San Diego diocese's challenge to the law.

"We sincerely hope that all of these cases are settled before we get the final answer to this important question," he said.

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