Over 700 Sex-Abuse Cases Awaiting Trial

By Mark Sauer
Union-Tribune [California]
July 31, 2006

Since the sexual-abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests broke more than four years ago, thousands of lawsuits against clergy and dioceses in cities across the country have been tried or settled for an estimated total of $1.5 billion.

But more than 700 such cases filed against the dioceses in San Diego (160) and Los Angeles (560) have languished since 2003. This is by far the largest collection of priest-abuse cases anywhere.

Attorneys representing adults who say they were molested decades ago as children argue there is a simple reason that none of the cases has gone to trial: Church officials here and in Los Angeles have been masters at stalling.

In language dry as talcum powder, an appeals court last week seemed to agree.

"We will not delay this matter yet again, in regard to what we believe is a peripheral issue having no bearing on defendants' ability to determine the merits of the actions," judges of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles said in dismissing the latest action from diocese lawyers.

Translation: Get on with it.

The San Diego and Los Angeles lawsuits have been combined and are being overseen by L.A. Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholz.

Mediation was the method by which Fromholz hoped to resolve the lawsuits. He was encouraged in January 2005 when 90 lawsuits against the Orange County diocese were settled through mediation for $100 million.

But mediation has been a bust in the vast majority of the San Diego and Los Angeles cases, with victims' attorneys charging the dioceses with bad faith, and church attorneys saying that the plaintiffs' lawyers are so greedy they won't stop short of bankruptcy.

In an apparent shot across the church's bow, a frustrated Fromholz in May split off 10 of the cases five here and five in Los Angeles and ordered expedited trial dates.

A San Diego judge set a November trial date over objections from diocese attorneys, who said they could not possibly be ready before August 2007.

The date for the first trial was subsequently reset to mid-January by Superior Court Judge John Einhorn, who has been assigned to handle four of the five San Diego cases.

Attorneys for San Diego Bishop Robert Brom have followed the lead of those representing Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Out of various legal filings that have delayed the lawsuits, two arguments made by the dioceses stand out: That sensitive communications between a bishop and his priests, including documents relating to sexual abuse of children, is privileged and must be kept confidential.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Mahoney's argument, affirming a lower-court order that the cardinal must turn over records of a defrocked priest accused of sexual abuse. An independent national Catholic review board sharply criticized Mahoney for harming the church's reputation.

That victims' psychological examinations supporting their lawyers' declarations that their cases are valid called "certificates of merit" remained sealed. That was what the appeals court dismissed last week.

With perhaps $1 billion at stake in the settlement of 700-plus cases, the dioceses have ample motivation to delay trial or settlement, attorneys for the plaintiffs maintain.

Rodrigo Valdivia, chancellor of the San Diego diocese, commented on a recent quote from a plaintiffs' attorney in The San Diego Union-Tribune that it could cost as much as $500 million to settle the local lawsuits.

"Neither this diocese nor its insurance provider have sufficient funds to pay settlements or judgments in that amount without impairing parishes and schools," Valdivia said.

A Union-Tribune accounting of the San Diego diocese's properties placed tax-assessed value at more than $500 million.

"And the appraised/market value is two to three times that," said Irwin Zalkin, an attorney representing many of the San Diego plaintiffs. "Couple that with their insurance policies and there are ample funds to settle these suits without affecting schools or parishes."

The dioceses' conduct is frustrating justice, said Andrea Leavitt, a San Diego attorney representing several plaintiffs who say they were abused by Catholic religious members. "They are trying to wage a financial war of attrition against the plaintiffs."

Attorneys for the Diocese of San Diego and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did not return phone calls requesting interviews for this article.

Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227;


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