National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

Lawsuits multiply in California dioceses

Statute of limitations suspension could result in up to 1,500 cases

Los Angeles

By year’s end, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers, at least a half dozen Catholic dioceses of southern California will face somewhere between 400 to 1,000 clerical sexual abuse civil lawsuits.

Suits are being filed at a record clip because on Dec. 31 a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations that allowed civil filings in old child sexual molestation cases expires. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court severely limited a California suspension of the statute of limitations in old criminal sexual molestation cases, and priests being held in jail were released.

At the same time, California diocesan layoffs and cutbacks in ministries since the sex abuse scandal erupted nationwide in early 2002 are apparently as much a calculated move by dioceses to set aside money to fight the clerical sexual abuse suits as they are the result of shortfalls due to a decline in the stock market.

A departing associate director of the Sacramento-based California Catholic Conference, David Pollard, said it was announced in a staff meeting that “some dioceses had made huge cuts in personnel, set aside entire ministries, in order to set aside funds for potential legal obligations.”

Pollard ( see accompanying story), fired after 18 years on the job, believes his “downsizing” may have resulted from views expressed in a staff meeting that the California bishops were “making a mistake” in their lawyers-driven approach to the sexual abuse issue handling.

In September 2002, three days after Cardinal Roger Mahony opened his new $190 million cathedral, some 60 people were “downsized,” and many archdiocesan ministries curtailed or severely cut.

Asked about Pollard’s comments as they related to the cuts, a spokesperson replied by e-mail: “We were quite clear in our public statements re: our budget situation. We said the main cause was the downturn in the economy and no return on investments. We also said there would likely be a contingent liability with regard to the outcome of the sexual abuse litigation. What that liability would be, we said, was unknown. But we said we had to be aware of it in future planning.”

NCR was told by the archdiocese at the time it was the underperforming markets, not the sexual abuse crisis, “that was the proximate cause of the current cutbacks.”

Meanwhile, the latest criminal sexual abuse suit making headlines last month for the Los Angeles archdiocese was a three-count lewd conduct case against the Fr. Michael Wempe, transferred by Mahony from a parish to hospital chaplain in the late 1980s following abuse allegations.

Wempe is now accused of molesting a youth in the hospital chaplain’s office and in his car. Bail was set at $800,000.

On the civil front, also in September, three African-American sisters in their 30s and 40s have alleged that Fr. George Neville Rucker -- charged earlier with more than two dozen molestations -- molested them as girls while he was serving at St. Agatha Parish in Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Rucker, now 82, was the priest plucked from an Eastern Russia-bound cruise-ship diverted by authorities to an Aleutian island so he could be arrested on U.S. territory (NCR, March 21).

A spokesperson for Art Goldberg, the sisters’ attorney, said the firm was handling seven St. Agatha cases “with more coming in.”

Commenting on the sexual abuse civil suits emanating from St. Agatha Parish, attorney John Manly, who has more than 60 civil suits against local dioceses, and a further 20 elsewhere, said he suspects there is “a pattern and practice of dumping priest predators into vulnerable populations.”

Regarding the California civil suit filings against dioceses, Manly said he believes the total before year’s end could be as high as 1,500.

Right now all cases filed are being referred to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman, who is handling an attempt to have all cases settled by mediation.

On mediation, plaintiffs’ attorney Katherine Freberg, who has 19 cases in the Orange diocese, eight in San Diego and San Bernardino, and 90 in Los Angeles, told NCR, “It’s the church that says we want to mediate all these cases. Is that going to be successful? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m suspicious enough that even though we’re preparing for mediation, we’re also preparing our cases for trial, with our witnesses, our experts, a kind of dual track.”

The call is the client’s, she said. “The client can say, ‘I’m not satisfied with what’s come out of the mediation. Sue.’ That’s what mediation is,” said Freberg. “The clients control the case.”

Freberg believes that the final person to decide whether the mediation process has broken down, and whether the cases should go to litigation, “will be Judge Lichtman. He’ll be able to see the overall machinations of both sides and figure whether mediation is doable.”

The outcome, whether mediation or trial, said Freberg, is going to cost the southern California dioceses “millions and millions of dollars. There is a message being sent to the Catholic church hierarchy that these molestations be no longer tolerated. And that is the goal. If you look at the victims and what they want from all this, it is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Freberg anticipates at least 400 to 500 suits against the local dioceses.

Midwestern lawyer Jeff Anderson, who has more than 200 cases nationwide “against half the dioceses in the United States,” works with many of the southern California plaintiffs’ lawyers.

There is a complex ongoing legal fight in Los Angeles over some 2,000 documents from priest personnel files that the Los Angeles archdiocese is refusing to release, claiming First Amendment and special bishop-priest confidentiality rights. These have to do with criminal cases, but will be vital also to attorneys in the civil cases.

Anderson said he believes the documents eventually will be released.

In an agreement brokered between the archdiocese, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and some of the named priests, retired Judge Thomas F. Nuss is the special master appointed to sift through the documents and make a decision. The archdiocese is paying Nuss -- who has served in this capacity in other cases not related to sexual abuse -- $350 an hour for his time.

William Hodgman, Head Deputy District Attorney of the Sex Crimes Divisions in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, has filed 31 subpoenas requesting archdiocesan files pertaining to accused priests.

Hodgman has also requested hearings on Nuss’ ruling regarding the Los Angeles archdiocese’s objections to the priest personnel files being made available to the prosecutors. Nuss agreed with the archdiocese.

But the local media (the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the legal community’s newspaper) has filed a stay with the California Second District Appellate Court and requested that the hearings be public. The media’s request will be heard Nov. 12.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

  • Dec. 31, 2003 -- End of California’s 2003 calendar year suspension of statute of limitations in filing civil suits against alleged sexual molesters in decades-old cases.
  • It is expected that between 400-1,500 cases will have been filed against Southern California Catholic dioceses.
  • The Los Angeles archdiocese is claiming special bishop-priest and First Amendment privileges to prevent prosecution access in criminal cases to “several thousand pages” of priest personnel files.
  • Local media have filed suit to have a hearing on denial of release of documents.
  • On Nov. 12, the Appellate Court will listen to arguments in the media appeal.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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