Lawyers who have won millions of dollars in sex abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church nationwide filed a claim Tuesday accusing Santa Rosa Diocese officials of concealing former priest Don Kimball’s long-term sexual relationship with a troubled teen-age girl.
The alleged victim, Roberta Saum, now 41, appeared with her lawyers, advocates and her husband at a news conference in front of the diocese office on 10th Street in Santa Rosa to announce the suit.
“I would hope that the church gets the message finally that this needs to stop,” said Saum, a Hewlett-Packard software engineer who lives in the Sierra foothill town of Gold Run.
Her attorneys, who have handled hundreds of high-profile cases that have cost the church more than $70 million, said they know of 12 other victims of abuse by Kimball who are not part of this lawsuit. The cases ultimately could lead to new damages against the Santa Rosa Diocese of tens of millions of dollars, they said.
“Our message is to survivors,” said attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn. “You now have a chance to do something. Use the legal system to hold the diocese of Santa Rosa accountable.”
Saum’s lawsuit identifies no defendants by name, but Anderson said it is aimed at the diocese, rocked by scandal since 1994, and its current and past leaders, including current Bishop Daniel Walsh.
Walsh, who was out of town Tuesday, has not seen the lawsuit and had no comment, said diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak.
“Of course, it’s disappointing. It’s disruptive,” Frontczak said of the lawsuit. But she added that Walsh has urged victims of sexual abuse to come forward and report crimes to police.
“The bishop has made very clear his intention is to clean house,” including resolving all old cases, she said.
Saum’s suit says the alleged abuse and exploitation by Kimball lasted from 1976 to 1982, during the tenure of former Bishop Mark Hurley, who is dead.
Another of her attorneys, Larry Drivon of Stockton, said he is confident of proving that diocese officials knew Kimball was a problem in the early 1970s, before the allegations that resulted in Kimball’s conviction and prison sentence this year.
“Defendants’ despicable conduct has resulted in a legacy of pain and emotional devastation,” the lawsuit said.
Drivon and Anderson said they know of other Kimball victims who could all file lawsuits under a new California law extending the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.
Drivon said he helped draft the law, sponsored by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, that created a one-year window for lawsuits regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. The law, which passed the Legislature without a dissenting vote, suspends the statute of limitations for civil suits for one year beginning Jan. 1, 2003.
Anderson, who has handled more than 600 sex complaints against the church, and Drivon have about 150 sex abuse claims pending against California dioceses, many of them filed this year under the law’s provisions.
Drivon said he’s confident the Santa Rosa suit, as well as others that have been filed this year, would be allowed despite being filed before the official window opens.
Anderson said his cases have cost the church more than $70 million. Estimates of how much the Catholic Church has paid in sex abuse cases overall range from $500 million to $1 billion.
Anderson and Drivon collaborated on a suit against the Diocese of Stockton in which a jury initially awarded $30 million to two victims in 1998. The case was settled during an appeal for $7.65 million.
The Santa Rosa Diocese has paid $7.4 million to about 40 victims of four former priests, including Kimball and former Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, Frontczak said.
The diocese paid $1.6 million to settle a civil lawsuit against Kimball, once a nationally known youth minister and radio personality who was sentenced in June to a seven-year prison sentence for molesting Ellen Brem, then 13, at a Healdsburg church rectory in 1981.
Saum testified during Kimball’s trial that she and Kimball had a six-year affair, starting in 1976, when she was 15. Their sexual relationship ended in 1982, Saum said, but she continued a friendship with Kimball until 1999.
“He was like a father to me,” Saum said Tuesday, saying Kimball took advantage of her vulnerability as a troubled teen living in a foster home. “I just don’t want this to happen to other people.”
Randy Saum, also a software engineer and Placer County reserve sheriff’s deputy, said he supports his wife’s decision to file the lawsuit and endure the burden of another trial.
“What’s hard for me is to watch my wife hurt,” he said.
Also accompanying Saum was David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who said her suit will help other victims “come forward and get the help and the healing they so desperately deserve.”
Saum said she personally knows three victims of Kimball who are “still in denial” and have not recognized what he did to them as a crime.