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Some Priests Are Suing Their Accusers

Critics see a resemblance to a banned legal strategy for silencing opponents. Lawyer rejects the parallel.

March 05, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A priest formerly based in Los Angeles has taken an unusual approach in defending himself against an allegation that he molested a girl three decades ago: He has sued his accuser.

A dozen or so such lawsuits have been filed nationally in recent years as the child sexual abuse scandal has spread across the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, according to experts who monitor clergy sexual abuse litigation.

In a San Francisco case, a judge dismissed a libel lawsuit after finding that the priest could not prevail. Another suit by a priest against his accuser was dropped in St. Louis after the archdiocese agreed to pay the alleged victim $22,500.

Winning isn't necessarily the goal, some experts said. The suits adopt a decades-old legal strategy that has been used against activists and ordinary people who have spoken against developers, big property owners and other special interests.

The libel suit filed Feb. 23 by Msgr. Joseph F. Alzugaray in Los Angeles County Superior Court resembles what is identified in state law as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit, although his lawyer denies that characterization.

In a SLAPP suit, "the person who is accused of illegal activities turns the table on the accuser," said attorney Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project and counsel for the woman who was sued for defamation in San Francisco.

The lawsuits are "usually filed to retaliate or silence critics," he said.

Alzugaray took another rare legal step when he also brought a libel suit against the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a national support group for victims. The priest alleged that the group had libeled him when it issued news releases and distributed leaflets, also posted on the group's website, accusing him of having been a sexually abusive priest.

It is the first time the group has been sued for libel in its 14-year history, said its executive director, David Clohessy.

Alzugaray, now pastor of St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, is one of two dozen or more accused priests in California who have been allowed to continue working at churches and schools while civil suits alleging molestation are pending against them. Last week, a committee of U.S. bishops released an accounting of allegations against nearly 4,400 priests over the last 50 years.

Alzugaray has denied the allegations and has been cleared by his diocese, according to his lawsuit. And Deirdre Frontczak, a diocese spokeswoman, said Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Diocese recently visited St. Apollinaris "to express his confidence and trust" in Alzugaray. She said the diocese was not involved in the libel litigation.

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said Monday that his organization was not involved in the case either. Alzugaray, who transferred from the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1995, did not return telephone calls.

In his lawsuit, the priest also accused attorney Raymond P. Boucher and his Beverly Hills firm, Kiesel, Boucher & Larson, of libel, saying they falsely accusing him of molestation in a lawsuit. Alzugaray's name appears on a list of accused priests posted on the firm's website, along with a copy of the lawsuit naming him.

Alzugaray complained that Boucher's firm had violated a state law that requires names of defendants to be withheld until allegations are reviewed by a judge.

Alzugaray is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, although the case against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is based on his alleged misconduct.

Boucher predicted the lawsuit against his firm would fail.

"Any first-year law student knows you cannot sue for comments and statements made in a complaint," he said. "This is a not-so-subtle attempt at extortion, to try to force the plaintiff, and us, to drop the case without going through the litigation process."

Los Angeles attorney Neil Papiano, who represents the monsignor, said that only withdrawal by the plaintiff of her allegations would kill the lawsuit.

"The settlement is to issue an apology," he said. "They left us no choice; they won't back off."

The allegations have exposed Alzugaray "to hatred, humiliation, contempt, ridicule and obloquy," according to the lawsuit. It states that he has "suffered damage to his occupation and career advancement, severe loss of his personal and professional reputation, severe mental anguish and has been subjected to public scorn."

He is seeking unspecified general and punitive damages.

Such lawsuits represent a more defiant tactic by priests than they have used previously, observers said.

"I think that many of the perpetrators who are now being removed and sued are among the most shrewd and aggressive, and some are politically connected," Clohessy said.

He criticized the priests' tactics.

"You can't defend yourself without attacking others?" Clohessy said. "The time to take action like this is when you've actually suffered" from false allegations.

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