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Lawsuits Filed Against San Diego Diocese On Behalf Of Alleged Sex Assault Victims

The San Diego Diocesan Pastoral Center, headquarters for the Roman Catholic C...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: The San Diego Diocesan Pastoral Center, headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church in the San Diego Diocese is shown Tuesday, February 27, 2007.

Multiple lawsuits were filed Thursday against the Catholic Diocese of San Diego and numerous local parishes on behalf of alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse, with recently enacted legislation allowing such legal action even if the alleged abuse occurred outside of the statute of limitations.

The suits allege abuse in the 1960s and 70s by now-deceased priests who operated throughout San Diego County. The victims were previously unable to pursue legal action against the Diocese, but recently enacted AB 218 expands the statute of limitations and opened a three-year window starting this year for victims to file suit.

Attorney Irwin Zalkin said that each time abuse was discovered, priests were simply moved to other parishes where they could continue their behavior, with free access to new victims.

According to Zalkin, the Diocese routinely dealt with the problem of "bad priests" by sending them to desert communities, "where they thought they could hide, where they thought that the people there — mostly Hispanic — would not speak up, and they would be out of the limelight, so to speak."

Zalkin's office filed six lawsuits Thursday on behalf of 20 victims, but he said around 60 additional lawsuits are still being prepared and will be filed within the next 60 to 90 days.

"This is only the beginning," Zalkin said at a Thursday news conference. "Now (the victims) have a chance to be heard and to hold this Diocese accountable."

Among the priests targeted in Thursday's lawsuits are:

— Robert Koerner, who worked out of a parish in Calipatria;

— Peter Marron, who served in San Diego;

— Alexander Pinter, who served in Vista;

— Anthony Rodrigue, who served in La Jolla, Lakeside, Encinitas, Poway and other locations in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties;

— Joseph Rossell, who served in National City, San Diego, Carlsbad, El Cajon and Oceanside; and

— Gregory Sheridan, who served in San Diego, Ramona, and Fallbrook.

Kevin C. Eckery, vice chancellor and diocese spokesman, released a statement Thursday decrying the actions of abusive priests and urging victims to contact the church for compensation and counseling, which they can receive whether or not they decide to take legal action.

"Regardless of the legal issues involved, we have a moral obligation to provide assistance to any victim-survivor of that abuse and we would urge their attorney to contact us so that counseling can be arranged at our expense," Eckery said.

"There are no prior conditions and the offer of counseling stands regardless of any lawsuit against the diocese. The sexual abuse of minors is evil, regardless of when it happens, but as a result of various reforms in 2002 and earlier, including mandatory Safe Environment training for clergy and all church workers, annual age-appropriate safety training for students in Catholic schools and religious education, enhanced criminal background checks and enhanced awareness and vigilance, no new incidents of abuse have been reported to the diocese in nearly two decades."

Zalkin said the diocese has offered settlements to the plaintiffs from a victim compensation fund established last fall, but he considered the amounts offered — around $200,000 each — "an insult."

Zalkin also called the compensation fund offers a "convenient apology" that only came about once AB 218 was introduced, when the diocese "knew the statute of limitations was about to change, when they knew that they were going to be exposed to lawsuits and multi-millions in damages."

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