The first of six planned lawsuits was filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of former students of St. Francis High School in La Cañada Flintridge who allege they were abused by a priest at the school, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The lawsuit was filed against St. Francis, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a religious order within the Catholic Church that operates the school. The action comes as a new state law, AB 219, which extends the statute of limitations for reporting childhood sexual assaults, is set to take effect Jan. 1.
According to the suit, the first plaintiff, identified only as John Doe LA 1002, was a 15-year-old student at the school in 1984 when he began to be sexually abused by the Rev. Christopher Kearney, who taught at St. Francis from 1970 to 1995.
The suit alleges that Kearney abused Doe over a period of two years during wrestling matches and that the abuse reportedly involved the priest pinning him to the ground, rubbing his body against the teenager and fondling his genitals.
“[Kearney] sexually abused [Doe] for sexual gratification and was, at least in part, based on the [victim’s] gender and age, who was a minor child at the time,” according to the suit.
The Archdiocese said in a statement that it has not been served with the lawsuit and that Kearney is not a priest with them but with the Capuchins. However, the Archdiocese did publish Kearney’s name in 2004 in a list of clergy members who had been publicly accused of abuse.
Requests for comment from the Capuchin order and St. Francis were not immediately returned.
The Los Angeles Times previously reported that Kearney had a penchant for getting into impromptu wrestling matches with students at the school. He was eventually transferred from St. Francis in 1995 after being plagued by allegations that he had molested a student during such a match.
In 2002, Kearney was removed as head of the San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez after more allegations came to light that he molested boys at the school while wrestling.
Jeff Anderson, whose law firm is handling the lawsuits for the six victims, said in a news conference Friday that the new state law will give survivors of childhood sexual assault a new opportunity to hold their abusers accountable and to “expose any organization or institution that chose to protect that offender and thus contributed to that assault.”
“It’s a powerful opportunity for survivors to recover their power, recover their voice and take action,” he said.
Anderson said the suit is seeking accountability from the school, the Capuchins and the Archdiocese over an alleged cover-up of Kearney’s actions at the school.
In its statement, the Archdiocese said it has a zero-tolerance policy toward any member who harms a child, and any allegations that are made are reported to police and publicly announced, according to its statement. If the allegations are found credible, the member is removed from the church.
Michael Reck, an attorney working with Anderson, said it’s believed that Kearney currently lives in San Francisco. He added that it’s unknown what Kearney is doing in the city and alleged that the church had failed to publicly inform the community of Kearney’s past.
The firm also doesn’t know if he’s still teaching or has access to children, Reck said.
“They have not told us whether the burning public need or the imperative of child protection has been addressed because we don’t know if there are any safety protocols on him at all,” he said.
Nguyen writes for Times Community News.