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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 21, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 6Oakland, CA

First abuse trial against diocese begins in Hayward

As The Voice went to press, March 16, jury selection continued in a Hayward courtroom in a trial to determine whether the Oakland Diocese should be held responsible for the sexual molestation of two altar boys by a former priest.
Robert and Tom Thatcher have filed a civil suit against the diocese for assigning Robert Ponciroli as founding pastor of St. Ignatius Parish in Antioch in 1979, where he molested them.

Stephen McFeely, an attorney for the Oakland Diocese, said the diocese has already admitted negligence for exposing the Thatchers to Ponciroli, who is now retired and living in Florida. At issue is whether both punitive and compensatory damages can be claimed.

McFeely said the diocese turned over documents two years ago that include a memo from Bishop Floyd Begin stating that he had been told about alleged misconduct by Ponciroli at St. Cornelius Parish in Richmond. These allegations were made several years prior to the priest’s assignment to Antioch by Bishop John Cummins.

Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard ruled March 14 that the Thatchers cannot seek punitive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, they can still seek compensatory damages and possible punitive damages on other charges.

Their suit is one of two priest abuse cases currently being tried in the Bay Area. The other involves a former student and parishioner at St. Martin of Tours Parish in San Jose who is suing the San Francisco Archdiocese for alleged abuse by the late Father Joseph Pritchard.

Archdiocesan officials claim they were unaware of any abuse while Pritchard was pastor in San Jose. Pritchard died of cancer in 1988 before the allegations were made.

In all, more than 150 clergy abuse cases have been filed in northern California stemming from a 2002 state law that lifted, for one year, the statute of limitations for abuse victims seeking damages against organizations. Additional lawsuits have been filed in southern California.

Settlement talks in 43 other cases against the Oakland Diocese were continuing in Hayward. More than a dozen insurance companies are involved in the negotiations, McFeely said. Travelers Casualty and Surety Company has filed a lawsuit against the diocese in what McFeely called a “stunt” to resolve issues between the two entities.

Oakland Bishop Allen Vigneron sat at the defendant’s table during jury selection in the Ponciroli case. He was there to show his “interest and concern,” said McFeely. Other diocesan officials are also expected to attend.



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