Church loses on key points, witnesses
Judge in sex-abuse trial rejects bids to limit negative information, testimony
- Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005
Attempts by the Catholic Church to limit evidence and witnesses in a key sexual abuse coverup trial were rejected Wednesday by an East Bay judge.
The rulings by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard put new pressure on the Diocese of Oakland to settle a damages suit by two former altar boys who say church leaders allowed a known pedophile priest to molest them in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Church lawyers have already admitted the diocese was negligent in its 1979 promotion of the Rev. Robert Ponciroli to pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch.
Now the issue is whether the church is guilty of "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Sheppard has yet to rule on that key point, but his decision could result in punitive damages and a much higher award to the plaintiffs in the case, Bob Thatcher, 34, of Phoenix, and his brother, Tom, 37, of Winter Springs, Fla.
Their lawsuit, along with a separate suit being heard this week in San Francisco, are the first two civil cases in the state to reach trial under a 2002 state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on damages suits against organizations that gave known molesters access to more victims.
They are being closely watched because they affect hundreds of similar lawsuits across the state and could cost the Catholic Church in California hundreds of millions of dollars.
San Jose attorney Allen Ruby, representing the Diocese of Oakland, pleaded with Judge Sheppard to limit the number of abuse victims the plaintiffs' lawyers can parade before a jury, which is expected to be selected next week in Hayward.
"There is something about the DNA of these cases,'' Ruby told the court. "Multiple incidents of abuse cause people to develop a rage reaction."
Sheppard ruled that victims and parents who reported child molestation allegations against Ponciroli to church officials could take the witness stand. Ponciroli, 68, is now retired and has been removed from ministry.
The judge also rejected church motions that sought to bar testimony by two expert witnesses: the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest, and A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest turned therapist.
Doyle is the co-author of a now-famous report in the 1980s warning Catholic bishops in the United States about a looming sex-abuse crisis in the church. Sipe has done extensive research and writing on the sexual lives of Catholic priests.
Hayward attorney Rick Simons, representing the Thatcher brothers, told the court that the church is afraid of Doyle because he knows too much about the attempted coverup by bishops of child abuse by priests and other church employees.
"Father Doyle is a whistle-blower, and that is not looked on kindly in this institution," Simons argued.
Sheppard also rejected a motion by church lawyers seeking to forbid any discussion of a 1962 Vatican document about the way bishops should deal with pedophile priests.
Stockton lawyer Larry Drivon, whose firm represents scores of abuse claimants, has said the document shows that the Vatican was involved in "an international conspiracy to obstruct justice."
Church lawyers say the Vatican directive, titled "On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation," only applied to priestly seductions during or immediately after the sacrament of confession.
The judge said the document itself could not be submitted as evidence, but Doyle or other expert witnesses could refer to it in their testimony.
Sheppard also rejected a church motion to place church documents in the Thatcher case under seal, which would have kept them from the media and the public.
"What goes on in this courtroom is public," the judge told Ruby.
In San Francisco, jury selection could begin Monday in a suit filed by Dennis Kavanaugh, a former student and parishioner at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in San Jose, against the Archdiocese of San Francisco for alleged child abuse by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard.
Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report.E-mail Don Lattin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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