REGION — Alleged victims of childhood sexual abuse by now-deceased priests who operated throughout San Diego County, including in Encinitas, are looking for a little bit of closure as they pursue legal action against the Catholic Diocese of San Diego.
Six lawsuits were filed Jan. 2 against the Diocese and numerous local parishes on behalf of the 20 alleged victims — 14 of them male and six of them female.
The suits allege that the abuse took place in the 1960s and 70s and involves accusations of priests engaging in inappropriate behavior with minors that includes touching, fondling and massaging; kissing; oral copulation; masturbation; and simulated anal intercourse.
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, whose office filed the six lawsuits, said his clients are seeking some sort of monetary compensation for the harm that’s been done.
“For these victims they’ve lived a life of incredibly difficult emotional distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxieties, depression, difficulties in relationships, and substance abuse,” Zalkin said Jan. 20. “The impact of child sexual abuse is devastating, it’s lifelong and it really derails the normal development of a human being.”
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.
Among the priests targeted in the 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.
Zalkin said around 60 additional lawsuits are still being prepared and his office is working diligently to file them as soon as possible.
Zalkin said the lawsuits serve first and foremost to protect children.
“They need to expose that there are people like this out there, that they are within institutions like the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts,” Zalkin said, adding they’re also within other religious organizations and youth-serving organizations, like sports. “These are institutions that by their very nature attract pedophiles and so to protect these children it’s important that they be exposed and that the institutions that have a practice of protecting these pedophiles and covering up, where they’re putting the protection of their brand, so to speak, ahead of the safety of children, that needs to be exposed.”
According to a press release, Kevin C. Eckery, vice-chancellor and diocese spokesman, released a statement earlier this month 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 in the release. “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.”
The lawsuits allege that since 2002, more than 850 actions alleging childhood sexual abuse by priests have been filed against the Roman Catholic Church in California state courts, resulting in nearly 150 lawsuits.
Zalkin said that once the Diocese “saw the writing on the wall” that AB 218 was going to pass, they instituted a victim compensation fund last fall and offered settlements — around $200,000 each — to the plaintiffs, an amount he considers to be insulting.
“The Diocese are hopeful that they will be able to pay people off at a substantial discount and keep quiet still the information that would otherwise be made known through litigation,” Zalkin said.
Zalkin said the majority of childhood sexual abuse victims never talk about it or report their abusers, they take it to the grave out of a sense of embarrassment, shame, self-blame or fear. He said he’s hopeful that with the filing of these lawsuits, it will encourage others to come forward, before the three-year window is up.
“I think people need to realize this is not their fault, they were children,” he said. “If they do take action, I think they’ll find that it’s therapeutic in many ways and it does empower them. They go from what I like to refer to as a ‘victim state of mind’ to a ‘survivor state of mind,’ and it’s a very different state of thinking.”