sex abuse lawsuits pass legitimacy test
By Glenn Chapman, Tri-Valley Herald
September 3, 2004
OAKLAND, CA-- An Oakland judge backed the constitutional
legitimacy of belated priest sex-abuse civil lawsuits Thursday
in a ground-breaking ruling that set standards regarding when
the church "knew or had reason to know" clerics
were engaged in lewdness on the job.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw's endorsement
of the state law that allows suits to be filed in 2003 against
the Roman Catholic Church for alleged sexual abuses by priests
decades earlier came as he set standards for cases to make
it to jury trials.
Sabraw is coordinating about 160 Northern California priest
sex abuse suits designated "Clergy III." The suits
involve 200 plaintiffs.
Applying his newly defined criteria, Sabraw granted motions
by church lawyers to block suits filed on behalf of by four
"John Does" who claim to have been molested by the
late Rev. Arthur Ribeiro while they were Catholic school boys
at Queen of All Saints Church in Concord in the early 1960s.
The archdioceses of Oakland and San Francisco could not be
deemed "on notice" that Ribeiro was a molester simply
because a now-deceased housekeeper reportedly saw the boys
visit the priest in his room, with the door locked and shades
drawn, Sabraw concluded in his ruling.
"The evidence can support many inferences favorable
to the plaintiffs, but the court cannot cross the line where
inferences turn into speculation, conjecture, imagination
or guesswork," Sabraw explained. "The evidence in
this case fails ... concerning whether the Church Defendants
were on notice because the triable issues are based on conjecture."
Even had the housekeeper known Ribeiro was abusing boys,
her job didn't come with the authority or responsibility to
doing anything about it, according to the ruling. Sabraw maintained
the church would be deemed "on notice" if a "director,
officer or managing agent" was informed of unlawful sexual
conduct. Top church officials also would be on the hook if
the information had reached any employee whose job includes
a mandate to report such suspicions, according to Sabraw.
"We are disappointed with the result," said attorney
Rick Simons, who represents the Ribeiro "Does" along
with plaintiffs in 108 other priest abuse civil lawsuits bundled
in the courts as "Clergy III" cases.
"We think the judge's interpretation of the evidence,
and the sections of the law, is a little narrower than what
the legislation intended," he said.
Sabraw is setting precedents in application of the new law,
making it inevitable rulings will be challenged in higher
courts. Simons said Thursday he plans to ask the State Court
of Appeal to review the judge's decision slamming the door
on the Ribeiro cases.
"This was an important case to bring before the court
so a judge can figure out where to draw the line regarding
who is able to go forward and who isn't," Simons said,
referring to the Ribeiro cases as among the most dated and
"You have to appreciate, no matter what side you are
on, how hard Judge Sabraw has worked and how much opportunity
he has given everyone to present evidence and argument,"
The state judge's rulings have the potential to dictate what
percentage of the suits against dioceses in Oakland and elsewhere
qualify for trial by jury, said Simons, the lawyer coordinating
the Clergy III litigation. Hundreds of similar suits in Los
Angeles and San Diego counties have been categorized in the
courts as Clergy I and Clergy II
Sabraw went on to rule that the Roman Catholic Bishop of
Oakland and Franciscan Friars of California, both defendants
in suits, can't be held directly accountable for sexual battery
under the theory they were vicariously liable for abuses committed
by clergy in their ranks.
"The negligent or reckless assignment or supervision
of church personnel by the Bishop of Oakland does not transform
unlawful sexual conduct by those persons into an expected
job function," Sabraw concluded, noting the bishop remained
open to findings of "outrageous conduct with reckless
disregard" that resulted in the infliction of emotional
Sabraw also set rules for a yet-to-be-scheduled 6-hour maximum
deposition of Cardinal Roger Mahoney who was the Stockton
bishop from April 1980 through September 1985. The judge also
addressed the potential of issuing protective orders for some
Sabraw scheduled the next Clergy III hearing in his court
for Oct. 13.