Are Suing Their Accusers
Critics see a resemblance to a banned legal strategy
for silencing opponents. Lawyer rejects the parallel.
By Jean Guccione
Los ngeles Times Staff Writer
March 5, 2004
A priest formerly based in Los Angeles has taken an unusual
approach in defending himself against an allegation that he
molested a girl three decades ago: He has sued his accuser.
A dozen or so such lawsuits have been filed nationally in
recent years as the child sexual abuse scandal has spread
across the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, according
to experts who monitor clergy sexual abuse litigation.
In a San Francisco case, a judge dismissed a libel lawsuit
after finding that the priest could not prevail. Another suit
by a priest against his accuser was dropped in St. Louis after
the archdiocese agreed to pay the alleged victim $22,500.
Winning isn't necessarily the goal, some experts said. The
suits adopt a decades-old legal strategy that has been used
against activists and ordinary people who have spoken against
developers, big property owners and other special interests.
The libel suit filed Feb. 23 by Msgr. Joseph F. Alzugaray
in Los Angeles County Superior Court resembles what is identified
in state law as a strategic lawsuit against public participation,
or SLAPP suit, although his lawyer denies that characterization.
In a SLAPP suit, "the person who is accused of illegal
activities turns the table on the accuser," said attorney
Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project
and counsel for the woman who was sued for defamation in San
The lawsuits are "usually filed to retaliate or silence
critics," he said.
Alzugaray took another rare legal step when he also brought
a libel suit against the Survivors Network for those Abused
by Priests, a national support group for victims. The priest
alleged that the group had libeled him when it issued news
releases and distributed leaflets, also posted on the group's
website, accusing him of having been a sexually abusive priest.
It is the first time the group has been sued for libel in
its 14-year history, said its executive director, David Clohessy.
Alzugaray, now pastor of St. Apollinaris Church in Napa,
is one of two dozen or more accused priests in California
who have been allowed to continue working at churches and
schools while civil suits alleging molestation are pending
against them. Last week, a committee of U.S. bishops released
an accounting of allegations against nearly 4,400 priests
over the last 50 years.
Alzugaray has denied the allegations and has been cleared
by his diocese, according to his lawsuit. And Deirdre Frontczak,
a diocese spokeswoman, said Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa
Rosa Diocese recently visited St. Apollinaris "to express
his confidence and trust" in Alzugaray. She said the
diocese was not involved in the libel litigation.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,
said Monday that his organization was not involved in the
case either. Alzugaray, who transferred from the Los Angeles
Archdiocese in 1995, did not return telephone calls.
In his lawsuit, the priest also accused attorney Raymond
P. Boucher and his Beverly Hills firm, Kiesel, Boucher &
Larson, of libel, saying they falsely accusing him of molestation
in a lawsuit. Alzugaray's name appears on a list of accused
priests posted on the firm's website, along with a copy of
the lawsuit naming him.
Alzugaray complained that Boucher's firm had violated a state
law that requires names of defendants to be withheld until
allegations are reviewed by a judge.
Alzugaray is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, although
the case against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is based on
his alleged misconduct.
Boucher predicted the lawsuit against his firm would fail.
"Any first-year law student knows you cannot sue for
comments and statements made in a complaint," he said.
"This is a not-so-subtle attempt at extortion, to try
to force the plaintiff, and us, to drop the case without going
through the litigation process."
Los Angeles attorney Neil Papiano, who represents the monsignor,
said that only withdrawal by the plaintiff of her allegations
would kill the lawsuit.
"The settlement is to issue an apology," he said.
"They left us no choice; they won't back off."
The allegations have exposed Alzugaray "to hatred, humiliation,
contempt, ridicule and obloquy," according to the lawsuit.
It states that he has "suffered damage to his occupation
and career advancement, severe loss of his personal and professional
reputation, severe mental anguish and has been subjected to
He is seeking unspecified general and punitive damages.
Such lawsuits represent a more defiant tactic by priests
than they have used previously, observers said.
"I think that many of the perpetrators who are now being
removed and sued are among the most shrewd and aggressive,
and some are politically connected," Clohessy said.
He criticized the priests' tactics.
"You can't defend yourself without attacking others?"
Clohessy said. "The time to take action like this is
when you've actually suffered" from false allegations.
But Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation
of Priests' Councils in Chicago, said Alzugaray has the same
legal rights as any other litigant.
"Just because he is a priest, it doesn't mean he should
not use all the legal proceedings available to him to defend
himself" against accusations, Silva said.
He said the suit should be viewed "not as intimidation
but a process of self-defense."
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony included Alzugaray's name in the
list of 211 accused priests that he made public last month
in his report on the child sex-abuse crisis in the Los Angeles
Archdiocese. With the disclosure, the cardinal warned that
"we must all resist the temptation to assume that, because
an allegation has been made, it is therefore true."
Alzugaray did not sue the cardinal or the archdiocese.
He is accused in a lawsuit of molesting a girl from 1967
to 1972 while she was attending Immaculate Conception School
in Monrovia. She first made contact with church officials
about the allegations a decade ago. Her name is being withheld
because The Times generally does not publish the names of
victims of sexual abuse.
At first, the woman refused an offer by the archdiocese for
free mental health counseling on condition that she submit
to a psychiatric exam, according to Alzugaray's lawsuit.
But she later changed her mind, and a church-paid psychologist
could not conclusively confirm or deny the identity of her
alleged abuser, the suit said.
In the lawsuit, Alzugaray stated that he had undergone five
separate psychological reviews.
A psychologist concluded in 1996 that he did "not see
to that kind of behavior," referring
to child molestation, according to the lawsuit.
Other cases have generally been resolved in favor of victims.
The San Francisco case began when a woman publicly accused
Msgr. Lawrence Baird, a former spokesman for the Diocese of
Orange, of making sexual advances toward her when she sought
his help with another sexually abusive priest.
She made the accusations at a 2002 news conference while
announcing a $1.2-million settlement with the Los Angeles
and Orange dioceses. She had sued the dioceses for failing
to protect her from another priest, John Lenihan, who impregnated
the woman when she was a teenager in Orange County and paid
for her abortion.
A San Francisco County Superior Court judge threw out Baird's
lawsuit in response to the woman's motion that it violated
the state's law against SLAPP suits. He also ordered the priest
to pay the woman's legal fees.
In St. Louis, the archdiocese agreed to pay $22,500 toward
counseling services for a man who, in letters to church officials
and prosecutors, had accused a priest of molesting him as
The allegations became public when the priest and his bishop
told parishioners that the accusations had been examined and
found to be without merit. The priest sued and the man countersued,
accusing the archdiocese of "unreasonable publicity."
Officials with the Survivors Network for those Abused by
Priests say their members are dedicated to supporting all
victims and preventing future abuse by monitoring the church's
handling of abuse accusations and accused priests.
"It certainly does not help survivors heal if we suddenly
kowtow to a bully," said Mary Grant, the group's Southwestern
"We have been doing this for years and we are going
to continue to do this," she said. "The parishioners
deserve to know the truth
. We are doing what church
officials have refused to do, notifying the parishioners and
searching for and finding other victims."