Brothers say priest molested them both

Ex-altar boys testify against then-pastor in Oakland Diocese

San Francisco Chronicle/April 6, 2005
By Henry K. Lee

Two brothers testified Tuesday that a former Antioch priest tickled and molested them when they were young altar boys two decades ago, scarring them psychologically and leading to sexual confusion and substance abuse.

One of the brothers said that several years after the abuse, when he was a young man, he had an unsettling realization that his first sexual encounters in the late 1970s to early 1980s had been with "a 300-pound priest."

Tom and Bob Thatcher, speaking at a civil trial in their lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, told a jury at the Hayward Hall of Justice that they were terrified when the Rev. Robert Ponciroli -- whom they described as a large, angry man -- took them, one by one, into a rectory bedroom.

Ponciroli, then pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch, had told the boys that he was going to punish them because they didn't properly pull weeds on the property, they said. The boys, who were about 9 and 10 years old at the time, said they felt confused because they didn't believe they had done anything wrong.

Tom Thatcher, 33, of Longwood, Fla., recounted how he went upstairs to the bedroom first one day. Ponciroli pulled up the boy's shirt and began tickling him while rolling around with him on the bed, Tom Thatcher said. "I felt like a little rag doll," he said.

When it was over, Ponciroli asked for Bob Thatcher to come up, the brothers said.

"He started tickling my sides, my ribs," said Bob Thatcher, 34, of Chandler, Ariz. "He pulled me back on top of him. He continued to tickle me, kind of rolled around. Then he kept getting lower and lower until his hands were inside my pants, and he was fondling me."

Bob Thatcher said he imagined that he was outside of his body when the alleged abuse occurred. He did the same thing when Ponciroli fondled him in a car after unbuckling his pants, Bob Thatcher said.

That incident was the most terrifying, he said, because "I knew he was going for a specific area. He went to great lengths to get to it."

Ponciroli, 68, who had been assigned to churches in Richmond, Castro Valley and Antioch, was removed from public ministry years later and now lives in Florida.

Church attorneys have admitted that the Oakland Diocese was negligent in its supervision of Ponciroli and could be liable for compensatory -- but not punitive -- damages. The outcome of the trial could influence the collective settlement of what is known as Clergy III, more than 150 similar lawsuits filed against Catholic dioceses across Northern California.

Tom Thatcher, overcome with emotion, paused for a moment Tuesday shortly after he began testifying. "I'm sorry," he said.

He and his brother told the jury that they didn't immediately report the abuse because their family, devout Catholics, believed that priests were the closest thing to God.

"I didn't want to tell anyone," Tom Thatcher said. "I was very afraid. I was just a kid. I know I didn't feel right about things. He was a man I looked up to. At the same time, I was very afraid of him and thought it was best not to say anything."

Tom Thatcher said he suffered from a methamphetamine addiction and would become "scared to death" in sexual situations with girls.

Bob Thatcher testified that when he became involved with girls, he got the sickening feeling that "my first sexual experience was with a 300-pound priest." He said he later developed an alcohol problem and suffered from panic attacks in sexual situations. When a girlfriend planned a romantic date and lit candles for him one night, "I was sick to my stomach," he said.

Allen Ruby, an attorney representing the Oakland Diocese, declined to cross-examine Tom Thatcher.

But Ruby asked Bob Thatcher if the diocese had helped him get in touch with other survivors of clergy sex-abuse. Bob Thatcher said Sister Barbara Flannery, who is in charge of diocesan programs for victims, had helped him, not the diocese.

Under questioning by his attorney, Rick Simons, Bob Thatcher said he decided to come forward several years ago because "I realized (Ponciroli) could still be a priest, and he could get to kids after he got at me. That's when the guilt kicked in."

Bob Thatcher said he was also prompted by newspaper stories about clergy abuse in Boston. "It was in every newspaper every day, over and over and over and over," he said. "I couldn't live with it anymore."

Coming forward allowed him to get in touch with other victims of clergy abuse, Bob Thatcher said. "I couldn't protect the kids that came after me, but I was able to reach out to other survivors and victims. That's helped in the healing, helped make amends."

In other testimony, Alfonso Morales and Jaime Palafox, former altar boys, also testified that Ponciroli had touched them inappropriately. Both testified that they didn't report abuse.

"I was brought up to be seen and not heard, especially when elders were addressed," Morales said.

Palafox, struggling to control his emotions, said, "I don't do that at the church. I respect the church. I was not supposed to do that kind of stuff."

Tina Funck-Thatcher, Tom Thatcher's wife, testified that her husband today "has a connection to God, just not within the church."

Simons said he expects to rest his case today.

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