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Suits Against Church May Be Combined

Lawyers Might Seek A Single Proceeding For Alleged Abuse Victims In California As A New State Law Lifts The Statute of Limitations For A Year

Jan 3, 2003 | Los Angeles Times

Attorneys for alleged victims of sexual molestation by priests may ask California's top judge to consolidate all cases against the Catholic Church statewide in a single court proceeding, lawyers said Thursday.

The discussions came as suits against the church began trickling into court a day after a new state law took effect. The law lifts the statute of limitations on sexual molestation lawsuits for a year if an institution or company allowed a known molester to continue to work and that person went on to abuse another child.

The discussions could lead to a single proceeding for all cases across the state, or at the very least, potentially hundreds of claims in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

"If there are 300 cases filed and the archdiocese files 300 answers and 300 demurrers in front of 80 different judges, it is utter chaos," said Beverly Hills lawyer Raymond P. Boucher, whose firm represents more than 100 alleged victims of abuse by Catholic priests.

Consolidation would begin with a request to Chief Justice Ronald M. George -- a procedure that has been used in California in the past to place all asbestos and breast-implant litigation under a single judge.

An expected flood of church molestation lawsuits this week was tempered when attorneys for hundreds of alleged victims and church officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties agreed Tuesday to try to negotiate claims made against priests rather than immediately file lawsuits. Separate mediation efforts also were being made in Sacramento this week.

Nonetheless, some suits were filed Thursday, including two in Orange and at least one each in Santa Clara, San Bernardino and Alameda counties.

A suit against the Diocese of Oakland involves alleged victims of Steven Kiesle, 55, a former priest at Santa Paula Catholic Church in Fremont, said Stockton attorney Larry Drivon. Kiesle, of the Bay Area town of Pinole, was arrested in May on three counts of child molestation. He is free on $180,000 bail.

In the San Bernardino case, the allegations concern former priest Paul Shanley, who was accused of molestation beginning in 1990, Riverside attorney William Light said.

Shanley was one of the priests whose conduct created a furor in Boston that contributed to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. The Boston Archdiocese favorably recommended Shanley to the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Attorneys representing alleged victims say hundreds of lawsuits could be filed against the church in California this year most of them in L.A. County.

"I think there are thousands of victims," said Costa Mesa attorney John Manly, who represents dozens of alleged victims. "But I don't think they will all come forward."

Dioceses statewide said Thursday that they were uncertain how many civil suits would be filed against them. Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Diocese of Oakland, said that she has received complaints against 23 priests and former priests and that it was possible others would be identified.

She endorsed mediation to resolve the suits, saying the law "creates animosity between the diocese and the survivors, and we're fighting very hard to keep that out of the picture."

Attorneys representing hundreds of alleged victims agreed Tuesday not to file more suits against Los Angeles and Orange priests for at least 90 days while a Los Angeles judge establishes a process for handling and, possibly, mediating all the claims.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman, a specialist in complex litigation, is overseeing the negotiations involving seven cases six in Orange County and a class-action suit in Los Angeles filed last year, as well as hundreds of potential claims under the new law.

Before the law was enacted, victims of childhood sexual abuse had been barred from suing in molestation cases after their 26th birthday or more than three years after discovering that their emotional problems were linked to a molestation.

Boucher began filing suits against the L.A. Archdiocese days after Gov. Gray Davis signed the new law during the summer, even though it would not take effect until New Year's Day. He said Thursday that he and several other attorneys are trying to work with court officials to expedite the processing of hundreds of cases.

By consolidating them before a single judge, he said, "we just saved the court system a tremendous amount of time and money."

During a hearing Thursday before Orange County Superior Court Judge C. Robert Jameson, the lawyers involved in the six previously filed Orange County cases said that during the 90-day standstill period, they would seek to determine just how many claims might be settled in Los Angeles without going to trial.

Settlements would mean faster payoffs for the victims, and would help the church avoid the kind of humiliation Boston church officials faced when court files were opened, revealing internal memos that seemed to focus on protecting the church more than on the abused.

Peter Callahan, an attorney for the Diocese of Orange, said Thursday that local church officials agreed in principle with plans to negotiate an end to the legal claims. "We're going to put things on hold and try to talk," he said outside the courtroom.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles also praised the mediation efforts Thursday. "To get into depositions, discovery, lawsuits and courts etc. would be a very, very unpleasant experience again for many of the victims, and we really did not wish that to happen to them," he said.

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