Two brothers receive nearly $2 million in church abuse case

Associated Press/April 13, 2005
By Kim Curtis

Hayward -- Two brothers molested by a priest more than two decades ago were awarded nearly $2 million in damages by a jury Wednesday.

The case involving the abuse of Bob and Tom Thatcher was closely watched because it is the first in a series of sex-abuse lawsuits to seek punitive damages.

Bob Thatcher, 34, was awarded $875,000 in compensatory damages and $875,000 in punitive damages. His brother Tom, 33, was awarded $180,000 in compensatory damages and no punitive damages were sought in his case.

While the total award of $1.93 million was far less than the $27 million plaintiffs attorney Rick Simons asked for in closing arguments, he said he was pleased the jury ruled that the Oakland Diocese acted with malice and awarded punitive damages.

"We've done the job we came here to do," Simons said. "The jury found malice on the part of the managing agents. We're really proud of Bob and Tom Thatcher. My congratulations to them and my thanks to the jury."

The jury decided that the diocese should be responsible for 60 percent of the compensatory damages and the Rev. Robert Ponciroli is responsible for 40 percent. The plaintiffs do not expect to receive any money from Ponciroli because he has no assets.

The diocese is responsible for the entire punitive damage award and insurance is not allowed to cover such awards. There was no immediate word on whether an appeal was planned.

The plaintiffs argued that the church knew Ponciroli was sexually abusing children but failed to stop him.

"The jury decided the policy and practice within the diocese of Oakland was to protect pedophile priests over children," Simons said.

Legal observers have suggested that a significant award for the plaintiffs could force the Roman Catholic Church to settle dozens of lawsuits filed against Northern California dioceses, but Simons said he didn't know what impact this verdict would have on future cases.

The former altar boys said they were molested when they were 9 or 10 at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch by Ponciroli, who lured each boy upstairs to his bedroom after asking them to come to the rectory to pick weeds. Ponciroli, 68, has been removed from public ministry and now lives in Florida.

Diocesan lawyers do not dispute that the abuse occurred, but they disagree the diocese was responsible for the anxiety, relationship and drug and alcohol problems the men suffered later.

Church lawyers suggested that $250,000 to $400,000 for each man was appropriate. Diocesan lawyer Allen Ruby said in closing arguments that the Thatchers did not prove the connection between the abuse when they were children and their emotional problems as adults.

The brothers gave emotional and graphic testimony during the trial, recounting "tickling" sessions in Ponciroli's bed and other inappropriate touching.

Bob Thatcher, who now lives in Arizona, testified about at least three incidents of abuse, including one while driving with Ponciroli, who loosened the boy's belt and pants and touched his genitals. Testimony began March 28.

The Thatcher case is the second to go to trial among 160 lawsuits filed in Northern California that are known collectively as Clergy III. More than 750 civil lawsuits were filed against Roman Catholic dioceses in California after the state in 2002 temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for filing sex-abuse claims.

In the first case, a jury last month awarded $437,000 to Dennis Kavanaugh who was abused in the early 1970s by the Rev. Joseph Pritchard, a former San Jose pastor who is now deceased. A second trial involving more of Pritchard's victims is under way in San Francisco.

The Thatchers' case is the first to seek punitive damages, which are designed to punish the diocese and help deter it from future misconduct.

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