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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227; [email protected]