Abuse suits use new law for old cases

Catholic Church in San Jose, S.F. are early targets

San Francisco Chronicle/January 2, 2003
By Pamela J. Podger

Two alleged survivors of child molestation, armed with a 2003 law allowing legal action decades after the alleged abuse, are set to file today the first of hundreds of lawsuits expected this year against the Roman Catholic Church.

Stockton lawyer Dave Drivon said his clients, Dennis Kavanaugh of Santa Clara County and another man who wishes to remain anonymous, will seek unspecified damages from the church for alleged abuse by a former priest when the boys were teenagers.

Drivon said the lawsuit, which he is planning to file today in San Francisco Superior Court, claims that the Rev. Joseph Pritchard inappropriately touched Kavanaugh on repeated occasions when he was a 15-year- old schoolboy attending the Saint Martin of Tours parochial school in San Jose.

The San Jose diocese and the San Francisco archdiocese, both named in the suit, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The new law suspends the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse cases for one year. The lawmakers' intent was to provide victims who were ashamed to report abuse decades earlier opportunity to seek legal remedy now.

The law applies not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to any institutions or organizations, includings schools, that continued to employ molesters who went on to abuse other youngsters. Lawsuits must be filed before Jan. 1, 2004.

Previously, victims of alleged abuse could seek court damages only until age 26. If emotional problems from childhood molestation arose after that, the person had three years to file a lawsuit.

"This creates a window of opportunity for those survivors that were previously barred to have their day in court, regardless of their age," Drivon said. "From the perspective of the survivor, there is no statute of limitations on the trauma."

Drivon said Pritchard, who served in the San Jose diocese and the San Francisco archdiocese and died in the early 1990s, preyed on children of devout families, betraying their trust in the church. He said his firm represents seven survivors of alleged abuse by Pritchard and that additional lawsuits may be forthcoming.

"Father Pritchard was charismatic and well liked by the parishioners, and gave the outward appearance of being a good man of the cloth," Drivon said. "But he had a dark secret -- he liked to molest kids -- and he did it for a decade. A lot of these parents scraped to get their kids into exclusive parochial schools and thought it was a safe environment."

Mary Grant, a founder of a Southern California chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the law that just took effect will give victims the courage to come forward.

"The new law is sending out a very strong message to the victims that the state of California recognizes the severe, long-term effects of being sexually abused as a child," Grant said.

"We think it will help facilitate healing for victims. And, hopefully, it will force organizations not to turn a blind eye to the abuse after they realize there will be consequences to protecting and harboring a child abuser."

Drivon said about five law firms collectively represent about 200 survivors of child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church. Drivon estimates there are about 400 to 500 potential lawsuits against the church in California alone.

Lawyers for alleged victims in Los Angeles and Orange counties agreed Tuesday to try to mediate claims instead of taking them immediately to court, according to attorney Katherine Kay Freberg, who represents nearly 80 alleged victims.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange will be given about 90 days to reach out-of-court settlements, lawyers said.

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