Fresno Bee, The (CA)
Copyright 2010 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 10, 2010
Sex abuse test case in Fresno court
Ex-altar boy alleges fraud after bishop's promise.
Pablo Lopez / The Fresno Bee
A Fresno courtroom will soon be the testing grounds for a new legal strategy that could help people sue the Catholic Church in cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests -- even if the statute of limitations has expired.
The Fresno County Superior Court case involves a former altar boy who says his Bakersfield parish priest told him "God wants you to do this" as he molested the teen 17 years ago.
California's statute of limitation prevents him from suing the Roman Catholic Dio-cese of Fresno for sexual abuse. So he is suing for fraud instead.
The lawsuit contends that Bishop John T. Steinbock broke a promise. The former al-tar boy says Steinbock told him he would defrock the priest who allegedly molested him.
But the accused molester, the Rev. Father Hermy Dave Ceniza, continues to work as a priest in the Philippines, according to Sacramento attorney Joseph C. George , who represents the former altar boy.
While the strategy has been tried in other states, this is the first time a Cali-fornia judge will rule on it.
Lawyers for the Fresno diocese, which includes Bakersfield, have countered the suit by saying it's nonsense. They say Steinbock kept his promise and got rid of Ceniza -- though they don't deny he's still a priest.
The lawsuit, they said, is just a sneaky way to get around the statute of limita-tions. "It's a lawyer's version of sleight of hand," said Sacramento attorney James F. Sweeney , who is defending the diocese.
But legal experts say suing for fraud is a sound strategy for sexual-abuse victims who believed -- and trusted -- church officials when they said they would get rid of pedophile priests.
"Fraud claims against the church are legitimate claims," said Douglas NeJaime , an associate professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Proving these cases will be difficult, however, he said. Success will hinge in part on whether the plaintiffs can prove that church officials intended to deceive.
Under state law, the deadline to sue the church or any other organization that knowingly employed molesters is the plaintiff's 26th birthday or within three years of discovering emotional problems linked to childhood abuse -- whichever is later.
The state's statute allows a person to sue for fraud within three years of the dis-covery of the fraud.
George said his client's lawsuits meets the legal requirement because he found out he had been deceived in April 2009. "The public, and especially Catholics, want to know the truth," George said. "The diocese's arguments are just an attempt to hide it."
The Fresno lawsuit is one of two that George has filed in California using the fraud strategy. In the other, he has sued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He said he plans a third fraud lawsuit soon.
On Aug. 5, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Adolfo Corona is scheduled to take the first stab at the issue in California. The judge is expected to consider the church's request to have the case dismissed.
In court papers, the former altar boy is referred to as Joseph Doe because of laws that protect the identity of alleged sexual-abuse victims.
In an interview with The Bee, he requested anonymity, saying he hasn't told his family about the allegations. They are devout Catholics.
"I know they are going to find out one day," he said. "I'm just not ready to tell them because it's going to hurt them and test their beliefs."
Joseph Doe is a Marine veteran who is an unmarried 36-year-old college student in Southern California. He says he is not gay, but that the alleged molestation has confused him about his sexuality.
As an altar boy, he trusted, obeyed and respected Ceniza, his parish priest at St. Francis Catholic Church in Bakersfield. He said the priest liked him because he played the organ during Mass and knew many Catholic hymns by heart.
"It began with a pat on the back," he said. "Father Hermy Dave then started touch-ing me."
He said Ceniza invited him to the rectory for meals. Then he would end up in the priest's bed.
From 1991 to 1993, he said, they had several sexual encounters, including one be-hind the altar inside the church.
"I remember the rectory had housekeepers," he said. "They had to know something was going on."
Joseph Doe said he felt powerless to stop Ceniza, largely because he was young and the priest was a servant for God. "I didn't know what to think. I couldn't question his actions," he said.
But the sex, he said, made him feel "disgusting and dirty." He said Father Hermy would calm him by saying, 'God wants you to do this.' "
In 1993, he said, he was frightened after he told Ceniza he would no longer have sex with him and the priest threatened to commit suicide. He was 18 and living with college roommates in a Bakersfield apartment. Ceniza would show up in the middle of the night and plead with him to have sex, he said.
Joseph Doe said it was this that spurred him to notify the diocese of the molesta-tion. Soon after, Steinbock drove from Fresno to Bakersfield and met privately with him for two hours, the lawsuit says. Steinbock promised Joseph Doe that Ceniza "would no longer be a priest and would no longer have access to children," the law-suit states.
At the following Sunday Mass , Ceniza was no longer at the St. Francis church, but parishioners were never told why, the lawsuit states.
Joseph Doe said he had legitimate reasons not to call police in 1993.
"Bakersfield is a small town. Everyone knows everybody," he said.
"I was too young to deal with it, so I trusted the bishop to take care of it," he said. "If I had told police, my family would have found out and it would have killed them."
But in hindsight, he said, he wishes he had told the police.
According to Sweeney, however, Steinbock didn't break his promise.
The bishop removed Ceniza from the Bakersfield parish and "ordered him to leave the diocese," he said.
The bishop then notified the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where Ceniza had worked before coming to Fresno, and also Ceniza's home diocese in the Philippines, Sweeney said.
"In other words, Bishop Steinbock did exactly what he said he would, and plain-tiff's allegations are false, and contrived solely to sensationalize the complaint for media consumption," Sweeney said.
After meeting with the bishop in 1993, Joseph Doe said, he went on with his life. He joined the Marines and served eight years. He said he talked to military chap-lains about Ceniza. "Basically, they told me, bad things happen to good people," he said.
He said the chaplains also told him: "When you're young, you're not in control."
After the military, Joseph Doe returned to college. He is currently working toward a doctorate in political science in Southern California, he said.
But his past haunted him, he said.
Around 2002, Joseph Doe said his life turned upside down when he started to read news accounts about the Catholic Church's reluctance to punish priests who had sexually abused altar boys and other children decades earlier. He began to wonder if Steinbock had kept his promise.
Joseph Doe said he called the Fresno diocese to find out if Ceniza was still a priest. He said his telephone call was transferred to church lawyers. The lawyers didn't deny that Ceniza was a priest, he said. Instead, they cited confidentiality laws and told him nothing, he said.
Joseph Doe said he gave up looking for Ceniza and began focusing on college.
Six years passed. Then one day in April 2009, he read a newspaper article about Steinbock's testimony in another civil lawsuit against the Fresno diocese.
The article, he said, made him believe the diocese had engaged in a pattern of mov-ing pedophile priests from one parish to another.
Joseph Doe said he hired George. They launched an investigation and discovered Ce-niza was still a priest in the Philippines. With that information, George filed a lawsuit in April this year.
"For years, I had suffered from guilt, and I blamed myself for what happened to me," he said. "Then once I learned Steinbock did nothing, and just transferred Fa-ther Hermy Dave to another church, it was like adding insult to injury.
"It was absolutely a slap in the face," he said.
The legal theory
In the broadest sense, fraud is the use of intentional deception to take someone's property or damage a person's well-being.
In the Fresno priest-abuse case, George said, the Fresno diocese committed fraud when Steinbock lied to the teen to induce his silence.
"He was duped," George said of his client, who is asking the diocese to pay for mental pain and suffering, as well as for medical and psychotherapy bills and lost wages.
Although much of the psychological damage occurred before Joseph Doe learned the truth, George argues that the molestation and fraud are intertwined. The fraud has intensified his client's emotional injuries from the molestation and hurt his abil-ity to trust others, he says.
Sweeney agreed molestation is "a horrible crime." But it doesn't give the plaintiff the legal right to "bootstrap that injury" into a fraud complaint, he said. There is little or no evidence that the alleged fraud caused him any distress, he said.
For the former altar boy to prevail, he must prove Steinbock and church officials intended to deceive him, said NeJaime, the Loyola professor. To determine if that happened, "you have to get into the subjective mindset of the defendant," he said.
The plaintiff's lawyer will likely dig through church documents to see if Steinbock told anyone about any plan to remove the offending priest. "That would be something to latch onto," NeJaime said.
The lawyer also can be expected to seek sworn testimony from the bishop or any wit-ness that corroborates the plaintiff's case, he said.
NeJaime said it's not impossible to prove a fraud complaint, considering "the ex-tent the church might have covered up the abuse and deceived victims about the in-ternal remedial steps taken."
For centuries, sexual misconduct by Catholic priests was kept secret by church of-ficials, the lawsuit states. But in 2001, the Vatican directed church officials to inform law enforcement of allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the lawsuit says.
By then, most sexual-abuse victims in California couldn't file claims against the Catholic Church because of the state's statute of limitation. In 2003, the state Legislature relaxed the rules, giving victims a one-year grace period to file sex-ual-abuse claims against the Catholic Church .
This led to hundreds of lawsuits that have forced the Catholic Church to pay mil-lions of dollars in settlements.
Among them was a $750,000 settlement in 2006 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno paid to a former parishioner who was sexually abused by a priest at St. Rita's parish in Tulare in the 1960s.
"The church has a history of covering up allegations of abuse and leaving these priests in positions of trust," said Minnesota attorney Mike Finnegan , who works for a law firm that specializes in suing the Catholic Church .
Complicating the Fresno case is the fact that a lawsuit was filed in Fresno County Superior Court on Joseph Doe's behalf in December 2003 in an effort to take advan-tage of the grace period.
This occurred after Joseph Doe called a law firm that specializes in molestation cases against the Catholic Church .
The case was dismissed at the attorney's request in 2005.
Joseph Doe said he didn't realize that the attorney had filed the lawsuit and only recently found out.
But the church's lawyer says that lawsuit makes the fraud claim invalid.
"The plaintiff's claim for sexual abuse, which was dismissed several years ago, is barred by the statute of limitations and cannot be litigated," Sweeney said. "This complaint is simply nothing more than an attempt to pursue a time-barred sexual abuse claim by dressing it up as a civil fraud claim."
George said he wasn't aware of the previous complaint until the diocese's lawyers found it.
Joseph Doe said he never paid the previous law firm to represent him. George said it's possible the law firm was just trying to act in Joseph Doe's best interest by suing before the grace period expired.
Finnegan said dozens of victims have now filed fraud claims against the Catholic Church in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana.
So far, no jury has decided the validity of a fraud allegation, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court has allowed fraud claims to proceed, he said.
Joseph Doe said he hopes his lawsuit makes a difference.
He still goes to church and prays. He said he's not motivated by money.
"It kills me to know the Catholic Church protects priest over kids," he said. "Even if nothing happens with this lawsuit, at least I will be able to say I stood up and objected."
Blissfully retired after 35 years treating sexual abuse