Judged Named in Priest Sex Abuse Civil Lawsuits

ABC 7 [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded June 18, 2003

LOS ANGELES - A Los Angeles Superior Court judge was chosen to hear all Southern California civil lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George on Tuesday selected Judge Marvin M. Lager Jr., a judge since 1994. It was a choice hailed by both sides.

J. Thomas Hennigan, attorney for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest archdiocese with about 5 million members, hopes Lager will speed up resolution of the cases saying, "we are anxious to get this thing moving." He added that Hennigan "likes to wrestle with complex legal issues."

Attorney Venus Soltan petitioned the chief justice to end weeks of delay after the first choice, whose name was not made public, was disqualified for undisclosed reasons. Soltan said Lager has worked on the mediation panel of the Superior Court's complex-litigation department. "It moves it forward," Soltan said.

On Jan. 1, a new state law eliminated the statute of limitations in child molestation cases until Jan. 1, 2004, creating a potential for civil lawsuits based on decades-old abuse allegations.

Soltan and attorney John Manly last month filed 10 lawsuits against the Southern California dioceses of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego, saying they were weary of waiting for church officials to produce personnel documents of accused priests, and wanted a judge's order to release them.

Church officials have said they plan to assert a Constitutional right of religious freedom to stop the opening for public record of priest personnel files that may include admissions of child sexual abuse by priests to their superiors, an argument already made by the church in criminal cases.

Retired judge Thomas Nuss is considering whether the Los Angeles Archdiocese must provide records to Los Angeles County prosecutors who have filed or plan to file criminal charges against current or former priests.

Over the church's objections, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled last month that all civil suits alleging sex abuse by priests in San Diego and San Bernardino counties now will be litigated before Judge Lager.

Orange Diocese Bishop Tod Brown said priests and their superiors may not have acted objectively when sex abuse accusations began and they may have closed ranks with colleagues and classmates.

"I think there was a tendency to do that kind of thing, to deal with this outside the public light, deal with it privately," Brown said Tuesday, on the eve of a national bishops' meeting, which he will attend, to discuss the sex abuse crisis. "You have to realize that they were all at school together. They had social relationships. There might have been friendship involved here. Now, we have the service of a couple of private investigators we use."


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