Some Priests Are Suing Their Accusers
A priest formerly based in Los Angeles has taken an unusual approach in defending himself against an allegation that he molested a girl three decades ago: He has sued his accuser.
A dozen or so such lawsuits have been filed nationally in recent years as the child sexual abuse scandal has spread across the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, according to experts who monitor clergy sexual abuse litigation.
In a San Francisco case, a judge dismissed a libel lawsuit after finding that the priest could not prevail. Another suit by a priest against his accuser was dropped in St. Louis after the archdiocese agreed to pay the alleged victim $22,500.
Winning isn’t necessarily the goal, some experts said. The suits adopt a decades-old legal strategy that has been used against activists and ordinary people who have spoken against developers, big property owners and other special interests.
The libel suit filed Feb. 23 by Msgr. Joseph F. Alzugaray in Los Angeles County Superior Court resembles what is identified in state law as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit, although his lawyer denies that characterization.
In a SLAPP suit, “the person who is accused of illegal activities turns the table on the accuser,” said attorney Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project and counsel for the woman who was sued for defamation in San Francisco.
The lawsuits are “usually filed to retaliate or silence critics,” he said.
Alzugaray took another rare legal step when he also brought a libel suit against the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a national support group for victims. The priest alleged that the group had libeled him when it issued news releases and distributed leaflets, also posted on the group’s website, accusing him of having been a sexually abusive priest.
It is the first time the group has been sued for libel in its 14-year history, said its executive director, David Clohessy.
Alzugaray, now pastor of St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, is one of two dozen or more accused priests in California who have been allowed to continue working at churches and schools while civil suits alleging molestation are pending against them. Last week, a committee of U.S. bishops released an accounting of allegations against nearly 4,400 priests over the last 50 years.
Alzugaray has denied the allegations and has been cleared by his diocese, according to his lawsuit. And Deirdre Frontczak, a diocese spokeswoman, said Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Diocese recently visited St. Apollinaris “to express his confidence and trust” in Alzugaray. She said the diocese was not involved in the libel litigation.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said Monday that his organization was not involved in the case either. Alzugaray, who transferred from the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1995, did not return telephone calls.
In his lawsuit, the priest also accused attorney Raymond P. Boucher and his Beverly Hills firm, Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, of libel, saying they falsely accusing him of molestation in a lawsuit. Alzugaray’s name appears on a list of accused priests posted on the firm’s website, along with a copy of the lawsuit naming him.
Alzugaray complained that Boucher’s firm had violated a state law that requires names of defendants to be withheld until allegations are reviewed by a judge.
Alzugaray is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, although the case against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is based on his alleged misconduct.
Boucher predicted the lawsuit against his firm would fail.
“Any first-year law student knows you cannot sue for comments and statements made in a complaint,” he said. “This is a not-so-subtle attempt at extortion, to try to force the plaintiff, and us, to drop the case without going through the litigation process.”
Los Angeles attorney Neil Papiano, who represents the monsignor, said that only withdrawal by the plaintiff of her allegations would kill the lawsuit.
“The settlement is to issue an apology,” he said. “They left us no choice; they won’t back off.”
The allegations have exposed Alzugaray “to hatred, humiliation, contempt, ridicule and obloquy,” according to the lawsuit. It states that he has “suffered damage to his occupation and career advancement, severe loss of his personal and professional reputation, severe mental anguish and has been subjected to public scorn.”
He is seeking unspecified general and punitive damages.
Such lawsuits represent a more defiant tactic by priests than they have used previously, observers said.
“I think that many of the perpetrators who are now being removed and sued are among the most shrewd and aggressive, and some are politically connected,” Clohessy said.
He criticized the priests’ tactics.
“You can’t defend yourself without attacking others?” Clohessy said. “The time to take action like this is when you’ve actually suffered” from false allegations.
But Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in Chicago, said Alzugaray has the same legal rights as any other litigant.
“Just because he is a priest, it doesn’t mean he should not use all the legal proceedings available to him to defend himself” against accusations, Silva said.
He said the suit should be viewed “not as intimidation but a process of self-defense.”
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony included Alzugaray’s name in the list of 211 accused priests that he made public last month in his report on the child sex-abuse crisis in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. With the disclosure, the cardinal warned that “we must all resist the temptation to assume that, because an allegation has been made, it is therefore true.”
Alzugaray did not sue the cardinal or the archdiocese.
He is accused in a lawsuit of molesting a girl from 1967 to 1972 while she was attending Immaculate Conception School in Monrovia. She first made contact with church officials about the allegations a decade ago. Her name is being withheld because The Times generally does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse.
At first, the woman refused an offer by the archdiocese for free mental health counseling on condition that she submit to a psychiatric exam, according to Alzugaray’s lawsuit.
But she later changed her mind, and a church-paid psychologist could not conclusively confirm or deny the identity of her alleged abuser, the suit said.
In the lawsuit, Alzugaray stated that he had undergone five separate psychological reviews.
A psychologist concluded in 1996 that he did “not see any proclivity ... to that kind of behavior,” referring to child molestation, according to the lawsuit.
Other cases have generally been resolved in favor of victims.
The San Francisco case began when a woman publicly accused Msgr. Lawrence Baird, a former spokesman for the Diocese of Orange, of making sexual advances toward her when she sought his help with another sexually abusive priest.
She made the accusations at a 2002 news conference while announcing a $1.2-million settlement with the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses. She had sued the dioceses for failing to protect her from another priest, John Lenihan, who impregnated the woman when she was a teenager in Orange County and paid for her abortion.
A San Francisco County Superior Court judge threw out Baird’s lawsuit in response to the woman’s motion that it violated the state’s law against SLAPP suits. He also ordered the priest to pay the woman’s legal fees.
In St. Louis, the archdiocese agreed to pay $22,500 toward counseling services for a man who, in letters to church officials and prosecutors, had accused a priest of molesting him as a boy.
The allegations became public when the priest and his bishop told parishioners that the accusations had been examined and found to be without merit. The priest sued and the man countersued, accusing the archdiocese of “unreasonable publicity.”
Officials with the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests say their members are dedicated to supporting all victims and preventing future abuse by monitoring the church’s handling of abuse accusations and accused priests.
“It certainly does not help survivors heal if we suddenly kowtow to a bully,” said Mary Grant, the group’s Southwestern regional director.
“We have been doing this for years and we are going to continue to do this,” she said. “The parishioners deserve to know the truth.... We are doing what church officials have refused to do, notifying the parishioners and searching for and finding other victims.”