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Questions, Hot Debate Mark San Diego Legal Process

By Mark Sauer - UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 30, 2007

Though they have never met, Jose Castro and Dan Hughes have certain things in common. Both were raised as Roman Catholics and both are keenly interested in the outcome of the Diocese of San Diego's ongoing scandal over allegations of child sexual abuse by priests and other clergy.

Castro, 55, is among approximately 150 men and women who have filed suit against the diocese. He said he was fondled and otherwise sexually abused repeatedly by the Rev. Rudolph Galindo when Castro was an altar boy in the early 1960s at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Otay.

When he reported the abuse to his mother, Castro said, she beat him; then she marched him down to Galindo. The priest, who now lives in a Texas retirement home and in recent years has admitted abusing children, also beat him, Castro said, and the sexual abuse continued.

“After those beatings, I just kept my mouth shut,” he said.

Hughes, 40, professes deep compassion for people like Castro.

But as a practicing Catholic at St. Margaret's in Oceanside, Hughes wonders whether a large cash settlement of the lawsuits will profoundly damage the diocese's mission to educate today's children, minister to their families and perform charity and other good works.

“What happened to these victims was a terrible, terrible thing,” Hughes said. “But I don't know if the typical, church-going Catholic here thinks about themselves being held financially accountable for these bad actors.”

Hughes' concern is among several commonly raised by Catholics and others across the county since the San Diego diocese, on Feb. 27, became the nation's fifth – and largest – Catholic diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in the face of large numbers of lawsuits.

Other questions include:

Aren't the “greedy” lawyers, who stand to collect about 40 percent of their clients' settlements, the driving force behind the lawsuits?

Are all of the victims' claims valid?

Why weren't the perpetrators, the priests, arrested and charged with crimes at the time?

The answers, like so many aspects of the priest-abuse scandal now in its fifth year, are complicated matters of deep contention between the victims and their attorneys and those representing the church.

Consider the “greedy lawyers” issue.

Unlike attorneys practicing criminal and other types of law, those pursuing “torts” – wrongful acts not involving breach of contract – do not get paid hourly or up front.

The reason civil attorneys collect significant chunks of settlements or jury awards is because of the uncertainty involved, said Joy Delman, a professor specializing in civil litigation at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

“You always hear about attorneys getting high fees in civil cases, but you never hear about it when lawyers get nothing,” Delman said. “Taking on cases like this is a real gamble. You could spend years working on it and never recoup a thing.”

Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer representing about one-third of those suing the San Diego diocese, said that without civil attorneys willing to invest several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on investigations, staff salaries and other expenses, no individual could hope to win a fair settlement.

“We are the equalizers,” Zalkin said. “We allow ordinary people access to the civil-justice system. We allow them an equal playing field with the bishop and the six major law firms he hired at a cost of millions.”

Attorney Andrea Leavitt, who represents nearly a dozen alleged victims, said that if the diocese suspects any of the sexual-abuse claims are not valid there is a simple remedy: take them to trial.

“We can't afford to file a frivolous case, because if we lose, we get nothing,” Leavitt said.

No amount of money can truly compensate these people, Zalkin said.

“The consequences of being raped or sodomized or molested as a child is devastating and it is forever,” he said.

“But monetary settlements represent an accounting, a recognition of the amount of harm that was done by both the crime by the priest and the cover-up by the diocese.”

Jose Castro said going to the police and reporting Galindo's crimes at the time simply was not an option for him, nor for many others.

“Back then you didn't do that against the church or a priest, who was seen as next to God,” Castro said. “People don't understand what was going on back then, speaking about sexual abuse was taboo. Today, it's a different era.

“I held this in for so many years, I never said anything to anybody.”

He blames continuous nightmares, suicidal thoughts, two failed marriages and the loss of his job after 26 years on the emotional damage caused by a priest decades ago.

“I can sympathize with people supporting the church today,” Castro said. “But I am scarred forever, and I have lost all faith in the Catholic Church.”

Legal maneuverings
In 2002, when the Catholic abuse scandal exploded nationally, California legislators passed a law that lifted the statute of limitations, allowing alleged victims to sue churches, schools and other institutions for long-past childhood sexual abuse.

A similar law lifting the statute of limitations that would have allowed pedophile priests to be criminally prosecuted was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though some priests, including the now-defrocked Anthony Rodrigue, were convicted and sentenced to state prison for abusing children in San Diego and elsewhere in more recent years, many escaped prosecution because the victims were too fearful or ashamed to come forward within the time statute.

The Legislature's exception for tort lawsuits meant those claiming to have been abused even decades earlier were given the calendar year 2003 in which to file suit. That resulted in more than 1,000 cases to be filed against the two Roman Catholic archdioceses, 10 dioceses and several religious orders across California.

Church attorneys in Los Angeles and San Diego, whose dioceses together faced more than 700 lawsuits, lost challenges in both state and federal court over the law's constitutionality.

Micheal Webb, in-house attorney for the San Diego diocese, said the church “wants very much to respond appropriately to victims of sexual abuse by priests and other church ministers.”

The diocese plans to again challenge the law during the bankruptcy process and “pursue it through all of the federal appellate courts, if necessary,” Webb said.

In order to bring suit in 2003, those claiming to have been abused had to go through a “certificate of merit” process.

Under penalty of perjury, plaintiffs filled out extensive questionnaires detailing abuse allegations, their attorneys investigated the claims to ensure they were truthful, and then the claimant submitted to a psychological evaluation by a mental-health professional approved by the court.

Webb acknowledged that the purpose was to screen false claims.

“Unfortunately, we have not been granted access to review the certificates, so we do not know to what extent this function was realized,” he said.

A judge denied a request by diocese lawyers to examine the alleged victims' psychological evaluations included in their certificates of merit.

Searching for atonement
Arguing that the 2002 California law was unfair, diocese attorneys noted that most of the 60 priests accused of abusing children here, and the several bishops and other officials accused of covering up the crimes, are dead.

A zero-tolerance policy regarding abuse has been established, the secrecy of the past has ended and known perpetrators are forced out, church officials said.

Webb said that Bishop Robert Brom, who took over the San Diego diocese in 1989, removed Monsignor Rudolph Galindo from ministry and forced him into retirement “with no access to children or young people.”

“With respect to Monsignor Galindo and all of the other priests against whom allegations of abuse were made, Bishop Brom fully complied with the provisions of the (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops') Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” Webb said. “And he did so well before the charter was adopted.”

Plaintiffs' attorneys disagree.

“It's not like these were the good guys who inherited a problem,” Zalkin said.

He noted that one priest, the Rev. Emmanuel Omemaga, was able to flee to his native Philippines in 1993 after admitting to the Rev. Steven Callahan that he had molested a 14-year-old girl.

Callahan said at the time he had urged Omemaga to turn himself in to police. A $1 million warrant for the priest's arrest issued by the San Diego County District Attorney's Office still stands.

Zalkin also cited recent testimony from Callahan that he destroyed personnel files in the early 1990s as evidence of a continuing cover-up.

“He claims he was following Canon Law, but no one in the diocese destroyed these records till he came along,” Zalkin said.

“They came in and destroyed priests' confidential files, they destroyed important seminary records and engaged in a cover-up that precluded people trying to prove up their claims.”

Webb countered that Callahan's “testimony makes it very clear that no incriminating documents were destroyed, and that in accordance with Canon Law, he performed a routine review of the files.”

Asked why current church officials should be liable for past allegations of abuse, Zalkin said a long-overdue day of reckoning is at hand, and courts and the church nationally have recognized that dioceses are institutions that should be held accountable for the past.

“Companies like Ford are paying damages now (in the SUV roll-over cases) for decisions made by executives long ago,” Zalkin said. “And even today, Germans are paying reparations for what a chancellor did more than 50 years ago.

“This is the way the system works.”

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Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227; mark.sauer@uniontrib.com


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
www.snapnetwork.org