Molest suit reinstated against Oakland diocese

San Francisco Chronicle/February 12, 2009

A state appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland by six men who say a priest molested them in the early 1970s, a ruling that could open the door to additional suits over sexual abuse by clergy.

The six, all brothers, sued in March 2007, saying they had discovered only recently that their psychological problems as adults were related to the molestation they suffered as children in 1972 and 1973. An Alameda County judge dismissed the suit in November 2007, ruling that state law had opened a one-year window, in 2003, to seek damages for sexual abuse that had allegedly occurred many years earlier.

Other judges around the state have reached the same conclusion on suits filed after 2003, said Irwin Zalkin, lawyer for Terry Quarry and his brothers, plaintiffs in the Oakland case. But the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled Tuesday that the same law allows one type of post-2003 suit: a claim by an adult who has just learned that a current disorder was caused by childhood sexual abuse.

Those adults have three years to sue the church or other employer of the alleged molester, if they can show that the employer knew or had reason to know of the danger and failed to take reasonable protective measures.

This interpretation of the law "places the burden of compensation for such injuries on the responsible parties instead of on the victims, their families and the public," Justice Maria Rivera said in the 3-0 ruling. She said the law targets a narrow group of institutions, those that "had both the knowledge and the ability to protect against abusive behavior but failed to do so."

Zalkin said the ruling would allow numerous California plaintiffs to proceed with claims that they learned, often in therapy, of a connection between childhood abuse by a clergyman and their current inability to maintain an intimate relationship, keep a job, or stop drinking.

But Mike Brown, spokesman for the Oakland diocese, said the decision conflicts with a 2006 ruling by a Sacramento appellate court that dismissed a similar case. He said the diocese may appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Quarry brothers, who were 43 to 49 years old when they sued, alleged that they were molested as youngsters by the Rev. Donald Broderson, then a priest in Concord. Broderson was transferred to several different parishes before the diocese forced him into retirement in the early 1990s.

The diocese settled several lawsuits filed in 2003 that accused Broderson of molestation. Published reports have quoted him as admitting in a court deposition that he had sexually abused children in the 1970s. He has not been criminally prosecuted.

The brothers said in their suit that they had known what the priest did to them, but developed coping mechanisms that prevented them from fully understanding the abuse and its consequences. They said they made that connection only in March 2006, a year before filing suit.

Brown said Bishop Allen Vigneron, leader of the Oakland diocese until his promotion to archbishop of Detroit last month, had held services in June and December 2004 apologizing to parishioners for "the betrayal of your trust by Donald Broderson."

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