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Lawyers Detail Molestation of 4 by Priest in San Jose

Times Staff Writer

Three decades ago, they were playmates at a Roman Catholic elementary school and victims of its pastor.

They were together again Tuesday in a courtroom here, now in their 40s, asking a jury to compensate them for the damage suffered at the hands of the late Father Joseph T. Pritchard.

The three men and one woman will testify that he repeatedly fondled them from 1971 to 1979 while they attended school at St. Martin of Tours in San Jose, luring them and dozens of others into his private living quarters with soft drinks, candy, games and cartoons, their attorneys said in court.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, which included San Jose in the 1970s, does not deny that the abuse occurred. In fact, the church accepted responsibility for all damage inflicted upon the four.

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San Francisco County Superior Court Judge John E. Munter read a prepared statement to jurors at the trial’s start. It said the archdiocese had admitted having received a complaint in 1977 about possible child sex-abuse by Pritchard but not adequately investigating.

James Goodman, an attorney for the archdiocese, asked jurors to award “reasonable compensation” to the victims, who suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual dysfunction. Not all of their problems resulted from the priest’s abuse, he said.

The jury will be asked to determine whether each plaintiff was harmed, whether the abuse substantially caused the harm and, if so, what amount should be awarded.

Last month, a jury awarded $437,000 to a man whom Pritchard had also abused. Jurors found that church officials knew or should have known that Pritchard posed a danger to children. Another priest had seen youngsters in Pritchard’s bedroom and sitting on his lap.

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The late priest is accused in pending lawsuits of molesting 19 more children throughout the 1970s. The accusations became public after his death in 1988.

The San Francisco case and one in Hayward are receiving statewide attention because they are among the first to go to trial since the abuse scandal first rocked the Catholic Church three years ago.

Legal experts say the awards’ size could influence the outcomes of the 544 claims against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and hundreds more against other dioceses statewide.

Attorneys in the San Francisco case say their clients were seduced by Pritchard with the arcade-like atmosphere of his living space in the rectory. The priest would point his finger at a child and demand that he or she sit on his lap, then would touch their genitals under their clothes, according to the lawyers.

In some cases, children witnessed their friends and classmates being fondled, the attorneys said. A female cook and a priest living in the rectory would sometimes interrupt Pritchard during the abuse, they said.

John Salberg, a 40-year-old teacher and coach, and another plaintiff wept openly in the front row of the courtroom as Salberg’s lawyer and the others outlined their cases for the jury in opening statements.

Salberg and the other plaintiff, who is his best friend, were molested twice a week year-round from the second grade until graduation from eighth grade, their lawyers said.

Salberg has flashbacks and can still smell the smoke and alcohol from the room where he was abused, said lawyer M. Jean Starcevich, who added that he had sexual problems and had been unable to have children.

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His friend has dreamed of driving to Lake Tahoe and driving off a cliff, attorney Robert M. Tobin said. The Times does not use the names of sex-abuse victims without their permission.

Another victim began smoking marijuana in fifth grade, after being fondled by Pritchard a dozen times, his lawyer, Laurence Drivon, told jurors. The boy stopped going to the rectory after that, and eventually abused alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. The woman will testify that, as a fifth-grader, she sought Pritchard’s affection, even though she was confused and uncomfortable with his sexual touching, which continued until she was 14, her lawyer said.

“It was a trade-off,” attorney Robert L. Mezzetti said.

Goodman countered that “without minimizing the wrongful conduct,” jurors needed to look at other factors that might have contributed to the victims’ problems. He said that the woman, who suffers from depression, was sexually abused by others, that her fiance was killed violently and that she had an incapacitating illness.

Two of the others, Goodman said, are “high-functioning” individuals who were molested but never abused drugs or alcohol as a result. Neither did their family relationships suffer, he said. The other man has stopped using drugs, Goodman told jurors.


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