Armed with a new law that takes effect today, attorneys are marshaling forces for what could become a statewide holy war with the Roman Catholic Church on one side and people who say they were sexually abused by priests on the other.
The law gives adults harmed as minors the right to sue any organization that employed an accused abuser and then failed to restrict the person’s access to children. It also lifts the statute of limitations on old cases, allowing a one-year window for alleged victims to file civil claims.
Among the first in line is an Oceanside woman who said she was abused 40 years ago by a now dead priest. The late Rev. Adalbert Kowalczyk served as pastor at a church in Fontana, which was part of the San Diego diocese until 1978.
Sandra Graves, whose previous lawsuit was dismissed on appeal, filed again last month in San Bernardino County Superior Court.
“I want some closure and I want my day in court,” said Graves, who testified before the state Legislature in June along with two others who accused Catholic priests and a woman who said she was abused by a United Methodist minister.
While the law, Senate Bill 1779 was not aimed at a specific institution, attorneys expect the Catholic Church to be the prime target and are ready to file hundreds of lawsuits. Some could come tomorrow, according to lawyers.
“My sense is for Southern California, there are probably on the order of 400 claims out there, and I think conservatively, there is an excess of 2,000 victims,” said Raymond Boucher, a Los Angeles attorney who represents Graves. “Boston had 430 people come forward. Los Angeles is the largest archdiocese in the country and the abuse was at least as prevalent here so the numbers start to add up and become staggering.”
Boucher, along with lawyers Larry Drivon of Stockton and Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., filed claims against three other priests in San Diego courts last year. Boucher said he also is working on cases against the San Diego diocese involving three more priests and a church employee, and estimates he represents 140 victims in Southern California.
For the duration of 2003, the new law amends a statute that allowed child victims to file civil suits only until age 26, or for three years after becoming aware they were psychologically harmed by the abuse, said Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, Graves’ former attorney who helped shepherd SB 1779.
Previously, the victims were pretty much limited to suing their abusers, Dunn said, but now they can go after organizations that shielded the offenders. This part of the new law will remain in effect after this year.
Aside from the lawsuits themselves, the biggest hammer victims can now wield may be the subpoena power that comes with court action.
Last year, it was the Boston archdiocese in the spotlight after thousands of documents were ordered released by courts. Those documents showed case after case of abusive priests who were transferred to new parishes.
The revelations, along with testimony given in court-ordered depositions, claimed the career of the Catholic Church’s most senior prelate in the United States. Boston Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down last month, apologizing once again and begging forgiveness from “all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes.”
Orange County attorney John Manly, who expects to file about three dozen lawsuits this year against Catholic priests, including several claims involving the San Diego diocese, said he will seek subpoenas if information is not forthcoming from church officials.
“I know what these guys did,” Manly said. “Some of it is horrific. I expect it to be very embarrassing and seamy.”
But Dunn cautions that the threat of public revelations could be a two-edged sword, also working to silence victims.
“If a teen-age boy was 14 and in a two-year sexual relationship with a priest from a local parish, not too many want to broadcast that around town now that they are adults,” the state senator said. “Despite the fact that it should be easier for someone to come forward, it is not an easy thing to do.”
Still, Catholic bishops in California are concerned enough about the new law that they sent out a rare joint letter last month informing parishioners about it. The letter outlined the problem of trying to get to the truth in such old cases and the possible financial implications, saying the church “has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with ‘deep pockets.’ ”
Boston’s lawsuits have piled up to the point that the archdiocese is openly contemplating bankruptcy. Four years ago, the Dallas diocese had to sell property to come up with its share of a $31 million settlement with victims of former priest Rudolph Kos, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting several altar boys.
Looking to insurance
San Diego’s Catholic diocese, which encompasses San Diego and Imperial counties, said it expects its insurance will cover whatever payouts are needed and that it has not set aside funds in preparation for this new law.
Orange County attorney Manly warns otherwise. “I think any diocese that thinks it’s going to get off with insurance money alone is just deluding itself because it’s not enough,” he said.
According to the local assessors’ office, the diocese has about 375 parcels in San Diego County worth an assessed value of more than $252 million. But the real market value of these holdings which include Holy Cross Cemetery, churches, schools and other property would be worth much more.
Monsignor Steven Callahan, chancellor of the San Diego diocese, did not want to judge the fairness of this new law yet. He did acknowledge, however, that “the diocese does have some concerns” about it.
While he said the diocese wants to be fair in responding to “genuine victims,” he said there are concerns about false claims and in “determining the veracity of claims from long ago when most or all of the parties involved, aside from the person making the claim, are dead.”
Between July 1, 1990, and June 30, 2002, which covers the 12 years that Bishop Robert Brom has led the San Diego diocese, the diocese has paid out a total of $378,853 for sexual abuse cases, according to a financial report issued by Brom. That includes $210,158 in outreach, such as counseling and other treatment, to victims of sexual abuse and $168,695 in outreach to priest offenders. Insurance payouts totaled $359,492, including $239,880 for victims and $119,612 for legal fees.
During that period there were four legal settlements, according to Callahan. A report on settlements and expenditures since June 30 is expected to be presented to the diocese’s Finance Council later this month. Attorney Manly, who is himself a Catholic, said this is not just about seeking financial restitution. “My clients aren’t going to just accept money. I want real change.”
What kind of change?
Manly talks about closing seminaries that have a record of turning out abusive priests, getting dioceses to pledge openness on all their files about past complaints and ending the secrecy around this issue.
“What I really wish is that the hierarchy in this state would stand up and take responsibility for what happened and get it all on the table and compensate these people and move on.”
Today, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national victims support group, will pass out leaflets about the new law at eight shoping centers in California â€“ from Orange County to Sacramento.
Graves, who no longer is a practicing Catholic, wonders why some people can’t understand that all the victims want is justice.
“If I got hurt in a car accident, nobody would be asking why I am filing a lawsuit,” she said. “Why is it wrong to hold someone accountable for negligence? It’s the lawsuits that have gotten molesters removed, the laws changed and the cardinal to step down.”
As for herself, she said: “I want to actually be able to walk into a church and feel safe and believe that the welfare of the children is more important than the church coffers.”