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Santa Rosa Diocese Agrees to Sexual Misconduct Settlement

Lawsuit: Tentative plan calls for $1.6-million payment and an apology.

March 15, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa has agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle a sexual misconduct lawsuit against a former priest and youth minister who allegedly molested teenagers under his supervision.

Under the tentative agreement, the diocese would issue a written apology to four former parishioners, establish a fund to provide therapy for victims of clergy sexual abuse in the Bay Area diocese and draft a policy on sexual misconduct.

Church officials said the agreement won't become final until the financially troubled diocese locates money to pay for the settlement, which was reached Thursday.

"We're working hard on this," diocese spokesman Maurice Healy said Tuesday. "We hope this brings an end to a difficult and damaging experience for many people."

The accusations against former priest Don Kimball--who has denied any wrongdoing--were among a series of scandals that have rocked the Santa Rosa diocese in recent years.

Allegations of sexual misconduct, financial improprieties and payments of hush money to people who threatened lawsuits have led even longtime parishioners to challenge diocese administrators. In July, Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann resigned after disclosures of his homosexual affair with a priest.

A 36-year-old computer worker who alleged that Kimball had molested him during his teenage years said Tuesday that the settlement can never heal his emotional wounds.

"I still live in a very dark place," said the Sherman Oaks resident. "Even this agreement can never take away what was done to me."

Still, he and others involved in the case hailed the settlement as being about more than money. For the first time, they said, the Santa Rosa diocese will publicly acknowledge the sexual misdeeds of some of its clergy.

"Many victims must be satisfied to take the money and run," the Sherman Oaks man said. "But we got the diocese to agree to a number of things that go way beyond just money.

"In the past, church practice has been to play 'hide the marble,' to move a troubled priest to another diocese and do nothing to hold him accountable. Not this time."

Kimball, 56, remains under investigation by Sonoma County authorities for alleged molestations that date to the late 1970s. He left the priesthood in 1990.

"Certainly there is no admission of guilt by Don Kimball," said Adrienne Moran, his attorney. "He has always maintained that these allegations are unfounded. And he was prepared to go to trial to prove that."

Santa Rosa attorney MaryClare Lawrence, who helped negotiate the settlement for the four plaintiffs, said that $500,000 of the amount would go to establishment of programs to assist victims of sexual misconduct. The rest would be cash payments to the victims.

She said the diocese also has agreed to form an independent panel of lay and clergy members to establish a policy on sexual misconduct.

Lawrence said the diocese has a chance to begin repairing a broken trust by being open with its followers about the settlement. "We expect the church to pronounce from every pulpit in the diocese that this is what happens when you abuse our children, that you have a moral responsibility to make care of it," she said.

At least five priests, including Kimball, have left the diocese in the past decade after being accused of sexual misconduct involving children and teenagers. One priest went to prison for molestation, another died and two others left the country.

Church officials--who acknowledge that the Santa Rosa diocese is $16 million in debt, largely because of bad investments--said they have spent at least $6 million on claims and counseling for dozens of victims.

One lawsuit still pending was filed by a former priest who alleged that the bishop coerced him into having a sexual affair. The bishop's attorneys have said any relationship was consensual.

Nationwide, the Catholic Church has paid $1 billion in judgments and settlements involving sexual misconduct cases since 1985, officials said.

"But unlike with past settlements, this is absolutely not to be hushed up," Lawrence said. "There will not be one iota of secrecy here. If you have a rabid dog on your hands you have to shoot it. And the church let loose a rabid dog on these kids. That's what they're going to tell people."

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