Santa Rosa Diocese hit by flurry of clergy abuse lawsuits under new state law
The Santa Rosa Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church is facing a fresh onslaught of lawsuits for its alleged role in enabling and, in some cases, concealing child sex abuse as far back as the 1960s involving four former North Coast priests - three of them now deceased.
The five lawsuits announced Monday by two law firms specializing in childhood abuse are among the first of what are expected to be hundreds, if not thousands, of cases filed throughout California under a new state law allowing survivors of childhood sexual assault to recover damages long after incidents of alleged sexual misconduct occurred. Although many of the suits are likely to involve the Catholic Church, the law applies to any childhood survivor.
The priests involved in the newly filed cases are all well-known among the ranks of local clergy accused of using their position of trust and spiritual authority to exploit children.
They include the late Rev. Patrick M. Gleeson and defrocked priests Gary Timmons, Xavier Ochoa and Don Kimball. All have been the subjects of past legal settlements between civil plaintiffs and the diocese, as well as in most cases criminal investigations. Only Timmons, who served four years in state prison for molesting youngsters, is still living. Now 79, he resides in Sacramento and has to report in each year as a registered sex offender.
But Timmons is not a named defendant in the cases involving him, both filed Monday in Sonoma County Superior Court.
Instead, the lawsuits target the Santa Rosa Diocese and Camp St. Michael, where much of his alleged abuse occurred. Both institutions could be subject to substantial financial penalties under the new legislation, which takes effect Wednesday, if the plaintiffs show sufficient proof.
“These cases are not so much about Timmons, but about the system and the reckless choices that the Catholic bishops of Santa Rosa have made over the years to protect their reputation over the safety of children,” said Minnesota-based attorney Jeff Anderson, whose law firm is representing the plaintiffs in the two cases involving Timmons.
Like Sacramento attorney Joe George, who represents six other plaintiffs suing the church over trauma experienced at the hands of Gleeson, Kimball and Ochoa, Anderson and his team have outlined a history of intentional secrecy in the Catholic church intended to prevent parishioners, the public and even law enforcement from learning about priestly misconduct.
It includes, according to the litigation, direct instructions from Rome beginning in 1962 to hold confidential any allegations of sexual abuse by priests. The church leaders instead kept that information in confidential files and sent accused priests to “treatment centers” or quietly transferred them to other churches, usually without informing the receiving pastor or parishioners, the suits allege.
The result was to provide priests access to victims for years, such as Timmons, who in the 1970s was accused of groping a church camper, according to Anderson’s firm.
Timmons, former pastor of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Rohnert Park and St. Bernard’s in Eureka, as well as founder of Camp St. Michael in rural Mendocino County, has been prosecuted criminally in two counties and has been involved in settlements with at least 15 abuse survivors since he was exposed as an abuser in 1994.
It was the first crack in the local Catholic church’s facade, marking a seismic shift that would soon be echoed across the country, as victims who had held painful secrets sometimes for decades began disclosing tales of abuse at the hands of men they had trusted as their spiritual leaders.
The Santa Rosa Diocese, which includes about 40 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border, became a focal point in the scandal, in part because of Timmons, who is believed to have had dozens of victims groomed at churches where he served and, particularly, at Camp St. Michael, which he founded in Leggett in 1964 while working as a youth minister.
Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa published a list of credibly accused priests a year ago that now includes 42 former clergy who have served in the diocese dating back to the late 1950s. He said the local diocese has paid about $33 million in settlements due to clergy sexual abuse.
And yet, attorneys say many survivors have yet to come forward, including those filing claims over the past week under the law that takes effect Jan. 1.
The new cases are among the first to be filed under the legislation signed last fall by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Among its provisions, the law suspends the statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse cases for three years, meaning anyone of any age can file a lawsuit seeking damages for injury related to sexual abuse or assault suffered when they were under 18, no matter how far back the allegations go.