Church Loses Abuse Case

Jury awards double the amount suggested by the San Francisco Archdiocese for a former altar boy molested by a priest.

Los Angeles Times/March 25, 2005
By Jean Guccione

In the first jury verdict against the Roman Catholic Church in California since the sex-abuse crisis erupted three years ago, a San Francisco jury on Thursday awarded $437,000 to a gardener who was molested by a priest in the 1970s.

The award, thousands more than what lawyers for the archdiocese had suggested - was consistent with the amounts paid to settle similar sex-abuse claims against the Orange Diocese last year, according to lawyers for plaintiffs.

The amount is expected to influence, and possibly reignite, stalled settlement talks in Los Angeles and throughout the state, giving lawyers on both sides some indication of how jurors are likely to resolve similar claims against the church.

The San Francisco case was selected by lawyers for all sides to set a low benchmark for the more than 700 claims against the Catholic Church in California.

For two reasons, it was widely considered the weakest among the nearly 200 claims pending in Northern and Central California:

  • The damage he claimed to have suffered from being fondled as many as 30 times over two years wasn't as severe as that claimed by other victims.
  • There was a dispute over whether the church knew or should have known that the priest posed a threat.
  • They never thought we would win the case or that the verdict would be significant," said Raymond P. Boucher, an attorney for other victims, referring to the San Francisco Archdiocese and its insurers.

The jury deliberated three hours Thursday before deciding how much the archdiocese should pay Dennis Kavanaugh, 47, for the abuse he suffered as an altar boy at St. Martin of Tours Church in San Jose.

The archdiocese admitted negligence for failing to adequately supervise the late Father Joseph T. Pritchard, after the same jury found last week that church officials had known or should have known that the priest posed a danger to children. Another priest had seen children in Prichard's room and on his lap.

The church will not appeal, spokesman Maurice Healy said.

San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada said he respected the jury's decision and that the archdiocese was committed to providing a safe environment for children and healing victims of past abuse.

"On behalf of the church and the archdiocese, I express my deepest sorrow to the adult victims of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy or church employees for the terrible crimes of sexual abuse committed against them," he said.

Kavanaugh's claim is the oldest of 23 filed against the archdiocese involving Pritchard. There are about 75 claims against the archdiocese in all.

During the weeklong trial, Kavanaugh testified that he lost his faith after the abuse.

His mother testified that during his sophomore year in high school, Kavanaugh lost interest in school and athletics and stopped going to Mass, telling her, "There is no God."

A therapist told jurors that Kavanaugh experienced a strong sense of shame, guilt and self-blame for not telling anyone about his abuse, thus allowing the priest to continue to molest other children, including Kavanaugh's younger brother.

Attorney James Goodman, representing the archdiocese, suggested to jurors that $200,000 to $365,000 was reasonable compensation. Kavanaugh's lawyer, Larry Drivon, did not offer an amount.

It was the first case to go to trial since state lawmakers temporarily lifted the statute of limitations to allow people to sue institutions, such as the Catholic Church, that failed to protect children from known predators.

The Orange Diocese agreed in December to pay $100 million to 90 people who said they were abused by priests and others. Payouts in the Orange cases ranged on average from $500,000 for cases in which the diocese had little liability to an average of $4 million for the best-documented cases of the diocese's negligence, Boucher said.

A second trial is set to begin Monday in Hayward, Calif. The case involves two brothers who say they were assaulted by now-retired Father Robert Ponciroli, five years after the diocese's bishop learned that the priest had sexually abused altar boys, church documents show.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.