March 11, 2005

Punitive damages possible in abuse case

Contra Costa Times

By Ivan Delventhal

HAYWARD - In a tentative ruling that could expose the Diocese of Oakland to significantly increased financial liability, an Alameda County judge on Thursday opened the door to a potential punitive damage award in a recently begun clergy sex abuse trial.

The ruling came in a civil lawsuit filed by Robert Thatcher against the diocese over molestation he and his brother, Tom, claim they suffered at the hands of former priest Robert Ponciroli at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch.

The Thatchers' suit alleges the diocese acted intentionally and with "reckless and conscious disregard of the safety of St. Ignatius altar boys" when it named Ponciroli pastor of that church. Robert Thatcher suffered severe emotional distress as a result, the suit states.

"As alleged, the conduct of the church is outrageous, oppressive and malicious," Judge Harry Sheppard said in explaining his tentative ruling. "And it was done with a conscious disregard for the persons they were entrusted to protect, being children."

The tentative ruling, if it becomes final, is significant because punitive damages, which are meant to punish a defendant for reprehensible behavior, could dramatically increase the monetary award in the case. It could also mean Robert Thatcher's attorney will present evidence of Ponciroli's history of abuse and of the diocese covering up the behavior.

Posted by kshaw at March 11, 2005 06:35 AM