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Priest Convicted in 1981 Sex Case

Courts: The Catholic clergyman faces up to five years in prison for molesting a teenage girl in Northern California. He is acquitted of raping another girl.

April 17, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — After sorting through allegations dating back two decades, a Sonoma County jury Tuesday convicted a Roman Catholic priest of molesting a teenage girl in 1981 but acquitted him of raping another girl four years earlier.

Father Donald Wren Kimball, a former youth minister known for using rock 'n' roll music to relay his religious message, will be sentenced May 15 on one felony count of committing a lewd act upon a child, and another of doing so forcibly.

Kimball, 58, could be imprisoned for up to five years. He was taken into custody after the verdicts were read. The priest, who was born and raised in Santa Rosa, had denied all charges but did not testify during the trial.

Observers in the packed courtroom gasped when the jury of nine men and three women read the first verdict, finding Kimball not guilty of rape. But when the guilty verdicts were announced, several elderly women thrust their fists into the air.

The victims said afterward they were not dismayed by the verdicts.

"I'm not disappointed," said Mary Agbayani, who alleged that Kimball raped her on the altar at Resurrection Church and then drove her to get an abortion in San Francisco.

Now 38 and the mother of nine children, she said, "Many doors have been opened for cases of other children abused by priests. They'll be coming forward in the next five to 10 years."

The molestation victim, Ellen Brem, said of the verdicts: "This is for the victims of the clergy everywhere. I hope it wakes the Catholic Church up."

The convictions come at a time when the church is under scrutiny for allowing abusive priests to operate in its midst.

In the Santa Rosa diocese, Kimball is one of about a dozen priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1989.

The diocese has spent $7.4 million to settle various cases, including $1.6 million involving claims against Kimball.

Kimball, an inactive priest since the late 1980s, remained impassive as the verdicts were read after three days of jury deliberation. Dressed in khaki-colored pants, a blue blazer and an open-collared purple shirt, he stared straight at Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gayle Guynup.

Tears in her eyes, Agbayani's mother, Maureen Holden, called out: "Put the cuffs on him now."

Jurors left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. But defense attorney Chris Andrian said they told lawyers they had focused solely on the evidence and had not been influenced by the national priest scandals.

"They weren't here to send messages," he said. "They decided the case on the evidence. They said they took no delight in their work."

The jury returned to the courtroom at 11:20 a.m. and told the judge they had reached a verdict. But Guynup sent them back to continue deliberations when she found that they had not reached a decision on the third of three charges.

Three hours later, jurors sent a note to the judge asking for a clarification on whether touching someone over the clothes constituted substantial sexual conduct. The jury finally returned at 4:40 p.m.

Prosecutor Gary Medvigy said he was not disappointed that he did not get the rape conviction, saying that the jury had to rule on the allegations based on the definition of rape when the alleged crime occurred in 1978.

"The laws were not as strict then," he said. "A charge of rape required resistance on the part of the victim."

The alleged rape victim told reporters she does not expect an apology from Kimball, as she once said she sought. "We won't get any 'I'm sorrys' from Don Kimball, but knowing that he'll go to prison is great," she said. "Thinking that he'll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life is empowering to me."

She criticized the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa for its handling of the case. "This case is a crack in the dam. There's no way the Catholic Church can fix it. They're going to have to change."

The diocese has been embarrassed by revelations that reached their highest level two years ago when a bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, resigned after being accused of coercing another priest into having sex with him.

In March 2000, the diocese settled a civil suit with several Resurrection Church parishioners who said they were molested by Kimball.

As part of the $1.6-million settlement, $500,000 was set aside to start a victims fund as well as a committee to review continuing allegations of clergy misconduct in the 140,000-member diocese, which runs from Santa Rosa to Oregon.

Members of Resurrection Church said that other claims of abuse by priests have been made to the committee in recent months and that they are calling on church officials to make them public.

The trial was delayed briefly last week when Kimball allegedly lashed out at a newspaper photographer during a court recess, knocking her camera to the floor. He was arrested and released on $30,000 bail. Kimball has denied striking her.

MaryClare Lawrence, an attorney who sued the church on behalf of three ex-parishioners allegedly molested by Kimball, said the priest's response to the courtroom incident was typical of his reaction to his other crimes.

"Don Kimball says, 'I only touched the camera. It wasn't my fault.' It's just like he tells this community, 'I only touched those children. But it wasn't my fault.'"

David Shaw, the current pastor at Resurrection Church, said the parish has been harmed by the charges.

"I know we've lost some people who felt this kind of behavior was the last straw," he said.

One grandfather, whose daughter was allegedly molested by Kimball in the 1970s, has been attending a victims' support group at Resurrection Church.

"We're happy today," he said. "For Don Kimball to spend just two hours in prison is enough for us. For him to get the stamp of a marked man is all the justice we need."

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