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Molestation Suits Likely To Flood State Courts

Dec 29, 2002 | Ventura County Star

Within the hundreds of new clergy molestation lawsuits that will begin flooding into California's courts Thursday, Manuel Vega sees a trickle of hope.

The Oxnard police officer and Marine hero was part of the lobbying push that helped state legislators lift the statute of limitations on most child sexual abuse lawsuits for a year beginning Jan. 1.

The new law means the Catholic church scandal many hoped would have begun to subside has no end in sight. Victim advocates, church representatives and lawyers debate the likelihood of false accusations and molestation claims so old as to be impossible to prove. But many of them agree a new wave of civil and criminal accusations is coming, meaning Catholics who want to right wrongs but simultaneously protect their church are entering another painful year of conflict.

Though Vega sees it as a godsend, the one-year window will weigh on him, too. He'll be linked not with the Oxnard Officer of the Year award he won two years ago nor the medal earned for rescuing Marines out of a helicopter in Korea but for accusations an Oxnard priest molested him beginning in the sixth grade.

The 36-year-old father of two is part of a class-action lawsuit already filed in anticipation of the new law and aimed at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Rev. Fidencio Silva, who supervised altar boys at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and was also Vega's godfather. He is accused of having molested many boys from the Oxnard parish in the late 1970s and early '80s when he was an associate pastor. Believed to be in Mexico, he has previously denied the allegations.

'A glimmer of hope'

"My pipe dream is that this whole thing will be resolved in the next year so that people can get on with their lives and believe again," Vega said, referring to the entire clergy abuse scandal. He pins his hopes largely on the new law that he lobbied for by telling his story to state legislators.

"It's not a good thing. It's a great thing," he said. "It gives us a glimmer of hope that what occurred to us when we were young wasn't our fault."

Under current law, people who were sexually abused as children have to file lawsuits before they turn 26 or within three years of discovering emotional problems caused by the molestation. The new law includes a moratorium that erases the limits for one year, allowing lawsuits against molesters and institutions that knew or should have known about abuse but didn't do enough about it.

That a torrent is coming is evident in that Katherine Freberg, an Irvine lawyer who represents molestation victims, was contacting media more than a week before Christmas to inform them that nearly 80 of her clients could be filing lawsuits beginning Jan. 2. She's hired about 10 people to help her handle the rush.

Ray Boucher, a Los Angeles attorney, said his office could file cases on behalf of 140 victims before the month is over. He said several of the cases coming in the next year will likely involve previously accused priests with links to Ventura County.

That list of possible defendants includes Carl Sutphin, once the chaplain at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard; Silva; George Miller, a retired priest living in Oxnard who already faces 19 criminal counts of molestation; and Patrick Roemer, onetime pastor of St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks, who pleaded no contest to child molestation about 21 years ago.

400-500 state cases predicted

"You're looking somewhere in the range of 400 to 500 cases in California," Boucher predicted for the coming year, estimating the numbers represent a small percentage of people permanently scarred by molesting priests. "I believe in the Los Angeles archdiocese alone there were somewhere in the order of 2,000 to 4,000 victims of clergy sexual molestation."

Many of the names in the coming lawsuits are of priests already accused, but there will likely be other retired or ousted priests who have not been mentioned publicly. Larry Drivon, a Stockton lawyer affiliated with Boucher, said the group is exploring possible cases involving 54 people who served as priests in Southern California.

Leaders of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles haven't been notified of any pending cases involving active priests, according to spokesman Tod Tamberg. He said church officials are meeting with the lawyers of alleged victims to try to resolve imminent claims "through mediation rather than conflict."

He also said archdiocesan leaders are considering whether to challenge the new law.

California's bishops sent a letter this month to Catholic churches throughout the state, warning parishioners of the flood of lawsuits and telling them the new cases will actually be old cases from alleged incidents that happened decades ago.

"The majority of these lawsuits will be for allegations that are 30, 40 and 50 years old," said Tamberg, noting that one allegation took place in 1936. "Certainly people who have been harmed from clergy sexual abuse deserve our support. But how do you determine the facts of a case that may be 40 or 50 years ago and there are no witnesses and no evidence?"

Passage of time helps defense

Drivon said if alleged victims can't prove their cases, they won't win their claims.

"The passage of time helps the defense, not the plaintiff," he said.

The reason for lifting the statute of limitations is to reach out to victims so scarred by decades-old incidents that some try suicide.

"There's no statute of limitations on suffering," Drivon said. "There is no statute of limitations on morality."

Victims say the law opens a door for people who have had no shot at justice and little opportunity to heal.

"It allows our voice to be heard," said John Enriquez, of Oxnard, who alleges he was molested by Silva more than 20 years ago in incidents that destroyed his ability to trust and have made him an ex-Catholic.

"They're going to pay. Hopefully, this will cripple the diocese and cause change. That's the bottom line," he said of his lawsuit expected to be filed this week against the archdiocese and Silva.

Some of the victims have a very specific goal.

"I want to see (Roger) Mahony step down," said Vega, noting that though his own allegations pre-dated the cardinal and leader of the Los Angeles archdiocese, he and many others believe Mahony knew about other accused priests and didn't do nearly enough to protect parishioners.

"This sick and horrible crime was known by people who continue to preach and lead the church," he said. "To me that is sick."

Archdiocese policies discussed

Tamberg dismisses any possibility Mahony will resign and talks about the archdiocese's zero-tolerance policy, removal of many accused priests, re-formation of a clergy misconduct review board and other safeguards. He said the archdiocese is fully committed to protecting its ministries from molesters.

Don Steier also doesn't see any chance of a change of leadership. The Los Angeles attorney, who represents several accused priests, said he thinks the cardinal has done a better job than most leaders in dealing with the molestation crisis.

"I don't see him being in Cardinal (Bernard) Law's feet," he said, referring to the Boston church leader who resigned earlier this month. "I see a totally different situation."

Steier has represented three accused priests who served in Ventura County -- Miller, Sutphin and Michael Wempe, who served parishes in Simi Valley, Westlake Village, Ventura and Santa Paula. Miller was arrested for molestation in December. Steier said he expects criminal charges will be filed against both Wempe and Sutphin, who currently face lawsuits.

Leaders from the Ventura County District Attorney's Office publicly complained in October that archdiocesan officials in Los Angeles were not cooperating with criminal investigations involving several priests who had served locally. A spokeswoman from the office would not comment on the status of cases or whether charges are likely.

L.A., Ventura investigating

Vega said he has been questioned by the District Attorney's Office about Silva. The Los Angeles Police Department has several ongoing investigations, according to a spokeswoman.

The environment is so tumultuous that, Steier says, he worries a reporter's phone call means one of his clients has been arrested. He thinks many of the criminal cases will hinge on a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected in the next year involving whether prosecutors can apply relatively new laws to alleged crimes that happened long ago.

"It's going to be a hell of a year," he said. "It's going to be a nightmare."

Some Catholics worry about the financial impact of a tidal wave of civil litigation. In their letter to parishioners, California's bishops said the church does not have deep pockets. The reference infuriated Boucher, who suggested it implied that people hurt by priests shouldn't seek justice.

Tamberg said the impact of the new lawsuits should not hit individual parishes in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

"We believe we have adequate insurance to cover the liability," he said.

The shock waves have hit everywhere. Priests who have not faced any accusations say they are stunned by the scandal and see no end in sight. Some parishioners say they want the truth to come out but are also worried about people presenting themselves as victims in search of a lucrative settlement.

Vega presents his motives as being straightforward. There is rot in the church, and he feels obligated to root it out -- for justice, but also to protect others. He hopes that in a year, he sees enough change to make it all seem worthwhile.

"If I didn't have to go through it, I wouldn't," he said.

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