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Victims of Priest Win $1.9 Million

Times Staff Writers

In a case closely watched by the Catholic Church across California, an Alameda County jury on Wednesday awarded more than $1.9 million to two brothers who were abused a quarter-century ago by a pedophile priest.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys had hoped to set a high mark for damages in such cases across the state, asking jurors to award $27 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Although the amount was dramatically lower, it nevertheless was the first time punitive damages have been awarded against the church in California since the abuse scandal exploded in 2000.

The civil case, filed on behalf of former altar boys Bob and Tom Thatcher, is among more than 750 brought against Roman Catholic dioceses in California -- two-thirds of them against the Los Angeles Archdiocese -- under a 2003 state law briefly lifting the statute of limitations for sex abuse claims. It was the second to go to trial.

Wednesday’s award included $875,000 in punitive damages to the elder brother, Bob, a 34-year-old Phoenix salesman. Those damages -- to be paid solely by the church -- were sought on behalf of only one brother as a technicality, to avoid redundancy, said Robert T. Waters, co-counsel for the brothers.

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“The jury got it right,” Waters said. The lawyers had requested $18 million in punitive damages. Although the Superior Court jurors in Hayward “had a different view of the value of the damages these individuals suffered,” Waters said, “they found the Oakland Diocese engaged in conduct where they had a conscious disregard for the safety of children in protecting them from pedophile priests.”

The diocese has appealed the judge’s order allowing plaintiffs to seek punitive damages designed to punish and deter similar misconduct. If the church were to win, the punitive damage verdict would be thrown out. Compensatory damages, on the other hand, allow plaintiffs to recover costs for damage suffered.

Church officials conceded that Father Robert Ponciroli committed abuses against Bob and Tom, a 33-year-old city worker in Winter Park, Fla. The brothers were abused at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch five years after Ponciroli’s alleged molestations of other boys had been documented by the diocese.

Among the evidence presented at trial was a 1975 memo in Ponciroli’s personnel file documenting parents’ reports to then-Bishop Floyd Begin that Ponciroli “took my pants down, touched my privates.” Another report said someone had seen a boy, naked from the waist up, lying on a table with Ponciroli tickling him.

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Ponciroli was transferred to the Antioch church four years later by another bishop, who testified that he had not read the personnel file. Ponciroli, who is 68 and retired in Florida, later admitted the abuse to police and described himself as “a sick puppy.”

Father Mark Wiesner, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, said the church agreed that the brothers “deserved something financially for what happened to them.”

But diocese attorneys decried the punitive damage award.

It’s “absolutely wrong,” said attorney Stephen McFeely, contending that the judge allowed evidence about other priest offenders and their supervisors -- long dead -- that “had nothing to do with the claim of the two Thatcher men.”

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The bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, Allen Vigneron, visited St. Ignatius and other congregations last year to ask forgiveness for past abuses.

McFeely said the relatively low punitive damage award indicates “that this jury listened and understood what the current bishop and others have been doing in regard to this issue for 10 or 15 years. There’s no indication of any child being abused by any priest in the Diocese of Oakland since the late 1980s. Something’s being done right.”

Donald Woods, an attorney for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, also condemned the punitive award, saying: “I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that anyone other than the perpetrator intentionally, maliciously or oppressively sought to injure any of these boys or any other member of the church.”

Still, Woods expressed relief at the relatively low jury award. The compensatory damages granted to the brothers -- $180,000 to Tom and $875,000 to Bob -- “sound appropriate,” he said. The church was ordered to pay 60% and Ponciroli is liable for the rest.

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Last month, a San Francisco jury awarded Dennis Kavanaugh $437,000 in the first civil sex abuse case tried under the 2003 law.

Woods said church attorneys had believed the Kavanaugh case was filed to set a low benchmark for abuse awards and the Thatcher case was intended to set a high-end benchmark. Instead, Woods said, the compensatory damages in the two cases were relatively comparable.

Times staff writer Jean Guccione contributed to this report.


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