April 30, 2005

Punitive damages in priest abuse case allowed, court rules

Oakland Tribune

By Josh Richman, STAFF WRITER

An Arizona man had a right to seek punitive damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland for failing to protect him from molestation by an Antioch priest about 25 years ago, a state appeals court ruled Friday.

Bob and Tom Thatcher were altar boys at Antioch's St. Ignatius when the Rev. Robert Ponciroli molested them at ages 10 and 8. An Alameda County Superior Court jury awarded Bob Thatcher $875,000 in punitive damages April 13 in his lawsuit against the diocese, as well as $875,000 in compensatory damages; Tom Thatcher sought no punitive damages but won $180,000 in compensatory damages.

But the diocese months ago had appealed a judge's ruling clearing the way for Bob Thatcher to seek punitive damages. The diocese claimed letting him do so would violate the state and federal constitutions' ex post facto clauses, prohibiting retroactive application of a law to criminalize conduct that was legal when originally performed.

The California Court of Appeal on Tuesday concluded there's no violation of the ex post facto doctrine. Punitive damages, while a form of punishment, are civil and not criminal in nature, the court concluded.

Posted by kshaw at April 30, 2005 05:07 AM