In what one lawyer described as “a way to hasten the healing,” three attorneys Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church’s Los Angeles Archdiocese on behalf of known and unidentified victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, is the first known class action to be filed against the church in Southern California’s molestation scandal, which has seen more than 60 current and former priests come under investigation by law enforcement agencies this year.
The suit names two Ventura County men as plaintiffs and alleges childhood sexual abuse, sexual battery and negligence by one unnamed priest. The archdiocese, the suit alleges, failed to ensure the safety of children and prevent future acts of molestation while engaging in a pattern of concealment. The attorneys said the class action, if certified by a judge, would allow dozens of others alleging sexual abuse by a variety of priests to join the litigation.
“We could continue to file individual cases on behalf of victims–a long, drawn-out process,” said Raymond Boucher, a Beverly Hills attorney and one of the three filing the suit. “Or we could pursue the class-action approach that provides the greatest possibility for victims to resolve their claims.”
Clients could obtain out-of-court settlements or court verdicts “with as little pain as possible” because a class-action suit involves less rigorous examinations of individual cases and puts more emphasis on a pattern of conduct, he said.
Boucher said he and attorneys Larry Drivon of Stockton and Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., have more than 50 clients who allege sexual abuse by one-time archdiocese priests.
Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of two men identified as Manny V. and Tranquilano G.
Although the suit did not name a specific priest, the lawyers said Tuesday that the two men were sexually abused as minors by Father Fidencio Silva while he was pastor at Oxnard’s Our Lady of Guadalupe parish during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Silva, 45, who was named in a previous lawsuit by eight Ventura County men, is the subject of an Oxnard police investigation. Silva, who now serves as a priest with the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit in Mexico, has denied the allegations.
The archdiocese, anticipating the lawsuit, released a statement Monday saying it wants to resolve as many cases as possible in the shortest amount of time and emphasizing actions taken in the past by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to limit the possibility of priestly abuse.
“It is important for the victims, their families and the church to expedite this process and move toward a brighter future,” said Tod Tamberg, an archdiocese spokesman. The archdiocese has a zero-tolerance policy for abusers and no priest accused of molestation is in active ministry, he said.
Since Mahony directed the removal of seven priests from the ministry earlier this year, dozens of victims have made additional allegations against clerics, triggering law enforcement investigations of more than five dozen current and former priests. The nation’s largest archdiocese covers 287 parishes in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
The lawsuit comes days after Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that creates a 12-month window in 2003 permitting the filing of cases involving sexual abuse, regardless of when incident occurred. Tamberg said the law is unfair and “plainly focused against the Catholic Church.” He added that the passage of time makes decades-old allegations hard to disprove.
Attorney Drivon said the new law allows victims to seek justice and holds the church hierarchy responsible. “They are the ones who covered up criminal conduct for decades,” he said. “They cannot scream now [because] they have to answer.”
Mahony, archbishop since 1985, early this year adopted a zero-tolerance policy for cases of past, present and future abuse. That policy, church officials say, went further than a policy Mahony adopted in 1992, which established a zero-tolerance policy for new allegations of abuse, but did not oust some clerics with prior allegations who had received psychological treatment.
In the wake of the U.S. Conference of Bishops in Dallas adopting a zero-tolerance policy for clergy abuse nationwide in June, Mahony last month asked “for forgiveness” from Southern California Catholics “for not understanding earlier the extent of the problem” or acting sooner to remove priests who abused minors. He also beefed up an existing clergy misconduct board.
Mahony, however, has come under fire for his transfer of Father Michael Stephen Baker to several parishes after the priest told him in 1986 that he had molested young boys. Mahony later approved a $1.3-million settlement with two men who had allegedly been abused by Baker in the 1990s and forcibly laicized him. Archdiocese officials say that Baker already knew those victims and that the cardinal has never transferred a known molester into a parish where they found a new victim.
Prosecutors convinced a grand jury to subpoena church documents related to Baker and two other priests, but have yet to complete the process of obtaining them.