Friends and parishioners of Lakeport Catholic priest the Rev. Ted Oswald were reeling Wednesday from allegations in a lawsuit that he sexually abused a boy he had befriended more than 10 years ago.
"Everybody's still in shock," said Mark Thevenot, who has known Oswald and attended his Masses for 20 years.
Oswald has been saying Mass at Saint Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Lakeport for two decades. He used the sermon on Sunday to announce he would be taking a leave of absence because of the allegations.
"You could hear everybody draw a breath," said Phillip Myers, a member of the church's advisory council.
Shock was followed by tears, then resolve to support a man that some parishioners said they trust and do not believe is capable of causing harm.
"I know he's innocent. I've never been as sure of anything in my life," Thevenot said.
The lawsuit was brought by Christopher Griego, 31, of Tracy. It does not specify what Oswald is accused of doing, only that it involved sexual abuse and occurred between 1988 and 1995 while Oswald was serving in Lakeport and Griego was a parishioner.
Griego could not be reached Wednesday for comment. Oswald also could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A woman who answered the phone at St. Mary Immaculate Church refused to take a message for him.
Griego's lawsuit claims the priest's actions caused "emotional distress, psychological harm and injury to his mental and physical health."
The lawsuit was filed in Sonoma County Superior Court last year, but did not name Oswald until last month.
Also now named in the complaint is the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, which oversees the Lakeport parish, for allegedly failing to protect Griego from Oswald. The diocese has acknowledged paying nearly $25 million to an undisclosed number of people molested by at least six priests. Most victims were pre-teen boys when the molestations began.
The suit contends that because the diocese failed to intervene, Griego "has further suffered loss of earnings and incurred expenses for care and counseling."
The lawsuit does not specify an amount being sought.
Thevenot said he knew Griego and had observed his relationship with Oswald.
Oswald befriended Griego, got the boy odd jobs around the rectory and would help him out financially, Thevenot said. He helped Griego purchase his first vehicle, and when the truck was lost, possibly to repossession, Oswald gave him one of his own cars, a 1986 Camaro, he said.
Sister Jane Kelly, a retired Ukiah nun known for exposing scandals involving sexual and financial misconduct by priests, worked with Oswald for four years when he was in Ukiah and also doubts the allegations.
"He was always a very good priest. I would be greatly surprised to find out he was in any way inappropriate with children," she said.
Simons, Griego's attorney, said criminal prosecution is not possible because the statute of limitations has expired.
The statute of limitations is also an issue in the civil lawsuit, but Simons said Griego's case is being pursued under an exception that applies in cases of recalled memories.
He said his client was cognizant of what happened to him as a boy, but only realized in the past three years that the alleged abuse was causing him ongoing psychological, physical and financial problems.