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Suit Links 6 Accused Priests to Parish

A lawyer for the L.A. Archdiocese denies that Santa Clara Church in Oxnard was a 'dumping ground' for pedophile clergymen.

October 28, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

At least six priests who are accused of molesting children worked or spent time at the same parish, Santa Clara Roman Catholic Church in Oxnard, between 1962 and 1996, according to a lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The suit was filed on behalf of 16 men and a woman who say they were molested as children by five of those priests between 1959 and 1985.

"It is doubtful any child could have grown up at Santa Clara Parish from the 1960s through the 1990s without being exposed to a pedophile priest," attorney Raymond P. Boucher wrote in the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The six priests -- Donald Patrick Roemer, George Miller, Carl Sutphin, Roderic Guerrini, Stephen Hernandez and Gerald Fessard -- were "some of the most prolific pedophiles within the Los Angeles Archdiocese," the lawsuit states.

Roemer and Fessard are convicted child molesters, according to the civil complaint. Child molestation charges against Miller and Sutphin were dropped this year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sex-abuse allegations against them were too old to prosecute. Neither Guerrini nor Hernandez has been charged with crimes.

Although the suit focuses on the Santa Clara Parish, only four of the plaintiffs were parishioners there during the time they say they were sexually abused by priests, according to the complaint. Seven others were allegedly abused by priests who were later transferred to the Oxnard church; the others say they were molested by priests once connected with the parish.

Although Fessard is mentioned in the suit, none of the plaintiffs allege they were abused by him. He was assigned to Santa Clara from 1977 to 1980.

Together, the six priests mentioned in the suit have at least 55 alleged victims, the suit contends.

"I suppose somebody could say it is coincidental, but the facts really speak for themselves," Boucher said Monday.

J. Michael Hennigan, attorney for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, denied that the Oxnard church was a dumping ground for pedophile priests. Further, most of the allegations made in the lawsuit were about incidents that took place before Cardinal Roger Mahony became archbishop, he said.

"I cannot even begin to speculate how multiple offenders get together in one place," he said, adding that it is "inconceivable" that someone would have knowingly dumped them all at Santa Clara.

"I don't believe in coincidence," Hennigan said. "There is an explanation about how this occurred. I just don't know what it is. But I reject the idea of a dumping ground."

Boucher blamed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for failing to protect children from the alleged sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of the accused priests.

"Despite knowing the sordid history of each of these priests, the defendant archdiocese placed them into Santa Clara Parish and other parishes knowing they would be revered by the children and families as respected members of the church," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the archdiocese was negligent in its hiring, retention and supervision of the priests and failed to warn parents about the potential dangers the men posed to children.

It also alleges that the archdiocese breached its fiduciary duty to protect children who attended churches and church-owned schools, and alleges that many of the sexual assaults took place on archdiocese property.

Daniel Smith, the lead plaintiff in the case, said he was 9 when he met Roemer at catechism classes at St. Paschal Baylon Church in Thousand Oaks. They bonded over sports.

"He was the lovable Father Pat," Smith recalled. "I trusted him because that's what I was taught."

Roemer began sexually abusing Smith in 1980 on church grounds, according to the lawsuit. The abuse stopped a year later when Roemer was arrested for molesting other boys, Smith said. Two other men, plaintiffs in the same lawsuit, also accused Roemer of sexually abusing them while they were students at St. Paschal.

Smith said he filed the lawsuit to try to get the attention of church leaders.

"I just wanted an acknowledgment that they did something wrong," Smith said. "It's the simplest thing they could do and the last thing they will do."

Roemer, who was convicted of molesting boys in 1981, was a fixture at the Santa Clara Parish while he was attending nearby St. John's Seminary in Camarillo throughout the 1960s, according to the lawsuit.

Another plaintiff, who asked that his name not be published, said he and his brother were molested by Miller while they attended elementary school at Guardian Angel Catholic Church in Pacoima.

He said he came forward after prosecutors were forced to drop their criminal case against Miller when the Supreme Court ruled that a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases was unconstitutional.

"It left us no choice," he said.

"It's not Miller I am upset with. He is a sick individual," the man said. "I'm upset with the people who are not sick, those who have purposefully lacked recognition, responsibility for what they did."

Miller was transferred to Santa Clara in 1984, after he allegedly molested the brothers at Guardian Angel, where he was pastor.

The lawsuit also alleges that Sutphin molested three boys at St. Rose of Lima in Maywood from 1962 to 1973; two at St. Mary Magdalen in Camarillo from 1972 to 1975; and twin brothers at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard in 1977, while Sutphin was regularly saying Mass at Santa Clara Church.

The suit accuses Guerrini and Hernandez of molesting a girl and a boy, respectively, while they were assigned to Santa Clara Parish in the 1970s.

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