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Two Sue Dioceses, Priests

Aug 9, 2002 | Mercury News

Two parishioners have sued the Catholic dioceses of San Francisco and Oakland, claiming that as children they were abused by their parish priests, including one who was placed on leave from his Belmont church hours after the lawsuits were announced Thursday.

Speaking through their attorney, both alleged victims said they endured years of silence and secrecy before deciding to come forward in the wake of the growing sex abuse claims against the Roman Catholic Church.

In a written statement, a woman who is suing the San Francisco Archdiocese and the Rev. Daniel Carter said: ``I am disheartened by the Catholic Church's inadequate response to my report of molestation. The church's inaction makes me wonder whether they are more committed to protecting their fellow priests than children. . . . I demand that Father Daniel Carter be removed.''

Carter is accused of molesting the 33-year-old San Francisco social worker in the late 1970s when she attended Notre Dame des Victoires elementary school in San Francisco, where Carter was a teacher. Carter most recently was the head pastor at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Belmont until he was placed on leave Thursday afternoon.

One parishioner, Muriel McLaughlin, 79, of Belmont said Carter recently addressed the nationwide scandal. She remembered Carter saying during a sermon that ``children are special and should be respected'' and that he added: ``Of course, we should pray for those involved in this. And we can't condemn anyone.''

Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, one of the lawyers representing the two alleged victims, this week also filed lawsuits in Sacramento and another in San Jose, in which two men say they were molested in the 1970s by a former pastor at St. Martin of Tours Church in San Jose. The lawsuits come on the heels of a new state law that gives victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue. Neither of the alleged victims suing the San Francisco and Oakland dioceses was identified in court papers.

Ex-Altar Boy Sues

In the Oakland case, the alleged victim -- described as a 32-year-old former altar boy who now lives in Arizona -- says he was sexually abused at about age 11 at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli, who served as a priest, counselor and spiritual director there from 1977 to 1983.

Ponciroli, who retired in 1999 and lives in Florida, could not be reached for comment.

Carter did return a reporter's phone call Thursday morning.

``I don't know anything about that,'' he said of the allegations. ``I'm going to have to hang up.''

Within 30 minutes, Joe O'Sullivan, Carter's San Francisco attorney, contacted the Mercury News.

``The allegations are ludicrous. We'll fight this,'' O'Sullivan said. ``Yes, my client knew the woman and her family, but he never did anything. . . . We'll countersue. I don't know about this woman's stability or whether she's motivated by monetary gains.''

O'Sullivan said he was retained a few months ago when a criminal investigation of Carter began.

O'Sullivan said he believes that investigation was sparked by the same woman who alleges Carter molested her in 1978 or 1979 while she was a student at Notre Dame des Victoires elementary school in San Francisco.

A devout Catholic, then 8 or 9 years old, she went to Carter for spiritual guidance, the lawsuit alleges. Carter then allegedly abused his position by telling her that the sex was a normal part of his priestly duties.

Rick Simons, another lawyer for the alleged victims, said his clients decided to sue before the criminal investigation is complete, to force the diocese to remove the priest.

San Francisco Roman Catholic Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy said the church forwarded Carter's name, along with about 40 others, to San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan when he requested church records two months ago. Healy said Carter wasn't removed from his job at the time because it wasn't ``immediately apparent'' that Carter was a risk to children. An internal review board looked at Carter's case and found it inconclusive, Healy said.

``It's not always as clean as some people would like it,'' Healy said.

San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Paul Cummins would not say whether charges would be filed against Carter, or confirm he was investigating the priest.

``We are looking at a number of names given to us by the Catholic Church,'' he said. ``But I am not at liberty to say anything else.''

News of the civil allegations shocked those who work with Carter.

``This is new information,'' said Rev. Joseph Healy, who works with Carter. ``This is devastating. It just takes my breath away.''

The suits, filed Tuesday in superior courts in San Francisco and Oakland, seek unspecified damages, and identify the plaintiffs as John Doe and Jane Roe, which is required by law until the judge determines there is reasonable cause for the allegations.

The alleged victim in the Oakland case said in a written statement released by his attorney that he believes there are other victims of Ponciroli's. ``It is my hope that this matter will bring those victims forward so that we can all put this behind us once and for all.''

No Charges Filed

Ponciroli was a parish priest, counselor and director of the altar boys, a position the suit claims was used to take advantage of the man who now lives in Arizona by gaining his trust. The suit alleges that church officials were aware of his actions and allowed him to continue working.

Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, said Ponciroli was removed from the ministry in 1995 after the diocese received a sexual abuse allegation against him and referred it to Richmond police. No charges were filed.

When the latest allegation surfaced in March, Flannery said, church officials immediately reported it to Antioch police, who are still investigating.

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