As window for sex-abuse lawsuits opens, alleged victims begin filing against Catholic Church and Boy Scouts
Half a dozen lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego accusing now-deceased clergy of sexually abusing 20 men and women decades ago were filed in Superior Court on Thursday, one day after a new state law lifting the legal time limit on when such lawsuits can be filed went into effect.
The lawsuits are the first of what will likely become a swarm of legal action in the coming months against churches and other institutions such as the Boy Scouts of America over long-ago sexual abuse of minors. Irwin Zalkin, the San Diego lawyer who filed the six lawsuits Thursday, said at a news conference that he plans to file another 60 cases over the next several months against the diocese.
“This is only the beginning,” said Zalkin, the lawyer who spearheaded a $198-million settlement of sexual abuse claims against the diocese in 2007. Those lawsuits, filed under a previous state law that opened a one-year window for claims against institutions for abuse that had occurred years earlier, drove the diocese to declare bankruptcy.
The new wave of litigation is made possible by AB 218, sponsored by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. The law expands the maximum age at which someone can bring a claim for sexual abuse from 26 years old to 40. It also opened a three-year window for those of any age to revive past claims that may have been prohibited from being filed as lawsuits because the legal time limit to bring such claims, known as the statute of limitations, had run out.
The suits filed by Zalkin target six clergy members who worked at parishes in the diocese in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. For part of that time the San Diego diocese included churches in Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties until 1978, when Riverside and San Bernardino became a separate diocese.
Each of the suits allege that the diocese knew that the priests were abusing minors but took no action to halt them — and instead, quietly moved the offending priests from parish to parish — without informing the members of the new parish of the danger the priest posed.
An analysis found more than 900 clergy members accused of child sexual abuse who were missing from lists released by the dioceses and religious orders where they served.
The cover-up allegation is a key element in the suits because the new law allows monetary damages up to three times the amount of any compensatory damages.
The six deceased clergy members named in the lawsuits are:
- Robert Koerner, who worked at St. Patrick’s parish in Calipatria and is named in a suit filed by five men who said he abused them separately from 1965 through the late 1980s. Koerner previously had been named in three lawsuits in 2003, and Zalkin said there were four other settlements involving the priest.
- Anthony Rodrigue who served in La Jolla, Lakeside, Encinitas, Poway and other locations in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties. Zalkin said at the news conference that Rodrigue admitted previously in depositions he had molested 150 children during his time and called him “one of the worst” abusive priests in the diocese. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading no contest in 1998 to molesting a child in San Bernardino County a year earlier. He left the priesthood in 1992. Five men say in the lawsuit he molested them at parishes in Calexico, El Centro and Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Alexander Pinter, who worked at St. Francis in Vista. One man says he was molested there in 1964 while he served as an altar boy.
- Joseph Rossell, a priest at St. Anthony’s in National City from 1956 to 1972 when he retired. Two women say he molested them in catechism class; the lawsuit does not give a time when this is alleged to have occurred. Rossell has been named in previous lawsuits.
- Gregory Sheridan, who served in San Diego, Ramona, and Fallbrook. Five men and women say in their lawsuit they were molested at St. Jude’s Shrine in San Diego starting in 1957 and stretching to 1970. Zalkin said there were credible allegations of abuse against him previously and records from the diocese show they had settled at least one previous claim involving him.
- Peter Marron, a member of the Augustinian order who worked at St. Patrick’s in North Park from 1970 to 1975. Two women are suing and say he molested them from 1976 through 1977 or 1978.
In a statement Kevin C. Eckery, the vice chancellor and spokesman for the diocese, said that of the six priests, two — Koerner and Marron— belonged to religious orders and were not diocesan priests. Pinter came from a diocese in Ohio, where Zalkin said allegations of molestation had been made against him, and was in San Diego briefly, and during that time no allegation was made against him to the diocese in San Diego.
Whenever Heidi Lynch thinks about priests molesting children, she shudders with memories of her own abuse and worries whether the Catholic Church is doing all it can to protect potential victims.
The statement expressed sympathy and apologized to the victims, most of whom were not identified in the lawsuits and sued under Jane Doe or John Roe pseudonyms.
“The sexual abuse of minors is evil, regardless of when it happens, but as a result of various reforms in 2002 and earlier, including mandatory Safe Environment training for clergy and all church workers, annual age-appropriate safety training for students in Catholic schools and religious education, enhanced criminal background checks and enhanced awareness and vigilance, no new incidents of abuse have been reported to the diocese in nearly two decades,” the statement said.
The diocese also invited victims to participate in an Independent Compensation Program. That is a funded program set up last fall, before the law went into effect, that tried to settle claims against the diocese instead of suing. Zalkin said there was “nothing independent about the funds,” and said his clients had gone through it and were given an offer of $200,000 to settle the claims, which they rejected. He said that was “pennies on the dollar” for the abuse the clients have suffered.
He was joined at the news conference by four men, ages 63, 70, 71 and 72, who are all suing. Only one spoke and agreed to be identified.
Edward Ortega, now 72 years old, said he was victimized by Sheridan when he was 11 to 13 years old. He said he was violently raped repeatedly. “When something like that happens, something inside of you dies and you never get it back,” he said.
Churches were not the only target of the new law.
At least one lawsuit was filed Thursday in San Diego County accusing the Boy Scouts organization of a longstanding practice of failing to take reasonable steps to shield children from being sexually abused, as well as actively concealing widespread abuse.
The lawsuit points out the Boy Scouts’ so-called “perversion files,” internal records on thousands of Scout leaders who’d been the subject of reports of molestation over the decades. Some of those files have been made public in recent years as a result of separate litigation.
Moments after winning a murder conviction in the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, the lead prosecutor, Jon Hatami, stunned the public with a revelation: He too had been abused as a boy.
Plaintiff Keith D., who asked to be referred to by his first name and last initial, alleges that former Boy Scout leader Thomas R. Wood — who is named in the Boy Scout files — used his position of trust to groom and eventually sexually abuse the youth at roughly the age of 12 or 13 in the early 1980s.
Boy Scout documents show Wood was placed on the ineligible volunteer list in 1991 following reports of molestation.
Attempts to reach Wood by phone Thursday were not successful.
The law firms representing Keith — PCVA and Panish Shea & Boyle — expect to file six more lawsuits against the Boy Scouts in San Diego, with two in the next week.
Another coalition of law firms that calls itself Abused in Scouting has about 1,500 clients nationwide, including 21 in San Diego County, and is expecting to file suits locally in the near future, an attorney said Thursday.
In a statement Thursday addressing the overall litigation, Boy Scouts of America apologized to any victims who were harmed during their time as Scouts. “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children. We believe victims, we support them, we pay for unlimited counseling by a provider of their choice, and we encourage them to come forward.”
How the Boy Scouts will handle the coming litigation is still unknown, with speculation continuing as to whether the nonprofit will file for bankruptcy protection. As of Jan. 1, membership dues were increased to cover rising costs required to continue operating, notably liability insurance.
Staff writer Kristina Davis contributed to this report.
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