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Priest's Libel Suit Is Thrown Out by Judge

The defendant acted legally in naming the cleric in a molestation complaint, jurist rules.

September 21, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A judge Monday threw out the libel lawsuit of a Roman Catholic priest against a lawyer who had named him in a complaint about an alleged decades-old child molestation.

Attorney Raymond P. Boucher acted within the law when he named Msgr. Joseph F. Alzugaray in the earlier lawsuit and then posted a copy of the sexual abuse complaint on his law firm's website, the judge ruled.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Jon M. Mayeda earlier this year had dismissed Alzugaray's related defamation claim against a support group for molestation victims, which had named the priest in a news release. After Monday's ruling, the only remaining defendant in the priest's libel suit is his accuser.

She has not asked the court to dismiss his claims against her. Instead, her attorneys said, witnesses for her defense will be subpoenaed, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Alzugaray's lawyer, Lauren Katunich, said the priest would appeal. Katunich argued unsuccessfully that Boucher had violated a state law that opened a one-year window for lawsuits by victims of older cases of childhood sexual abuse. She argued that the law requires that the names of priests and others who are accused be withheld from public scrutiny until the allegations can be reviewed by a judge.

Alzugaray, the pastor of St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, Calif., was not named as a defendant in Boucher's original lawsuit, although that claim against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is based on the monsignor's alleged misconduct.

Mayeda decided that the state law applied only to defendants accused of misconduct, not to other parties.

The judge also dismissed the website claim, noting that copies of all civil complaints filed in Los Angeles County are available to the public on the court's website.

Attorney Lucy Mekhael, who represents Boucher, said Alzugaray's lawsuit was "nothing more than an attempt to force dismissal of the underlying case." She said that an earlier sexual misconduct case against the archdiocese is being litigated in another courtroom.

That case involves a woman's allegation that Alzugaray molested her from 1967 to 1972 when she was attending Immaculate Conception School in Monrovia. The Times generally does not publish the names of victims of alleged sexual abuse. Alzugaray has denied the allegations. His lawsuit states that his diocese has cleared him of those abuse allegations.

Katunich said that the purpose of the libel lawsuit is to "confirm that Msgr. Alzugaray is an innocent man." She said the priest has no other means to do so.

"All of the damage to monsignor's reputation has been done," she said. "They know there won't be any litigation on the merits" of his case because Mahony has pledged to try to settle all 500 claims of sexual abuse by priests without going to trial.

Earlier this year, Mayeda rejected similar claims by Alzugaray in the same lawsuit against another defendant, a national victims support group, Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

Members of the victims support group distributed a news release last December that identified Alzugaray as one of 10 priests accused of child molestation in Northern California. They held demonstrations to warn others.

Those actions exposed him "to hatred, humiliation, contempt, ridicule and obloquy," and severely damaged his reputation, Alzugaray alleged in his lawsuit.

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