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Victims suing diocese can seek punitive damages

January 17, 2007|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

Sexual abuse victims of a defrocked priest can seek punitive damages from the Diocese of San Diego in a lawsuit that alleges officials knew the priest was abusive and did not protect them, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Former priest Edward Anthony Rodrigue was convicted of sexual abuse of children and has admitted to molesting five or six boys a year over 15 years.

Twenty people claim in a lawsuit against the San Diego diocese that Rodrigue, 69, abused them in the 1960s and 1970s.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Haley J. Fromholtz found Tuesday that the accusers have evidence to argue that the church helped cover up Rodrigue's conduct and acted out of malice. The case will be heard in San Diego.

Lawyers for the accusers argued that San Diego church officials were told at least four times that Rodrigue was abusing boys, but transferred him without informing new parishes.

On one occasion, a church official investigating abuse allegations against Rodrigue directed him to request reassignment and did not report him to civil authorities, Rodrigue said in a sworn statement.

If the church had notice and failed to protect its members, a jury could find that it acted with criminal indifference and conscious disregard for the safety of parishioners. The potential for punitive damages could prompt the church and its insurers to settle claims against it.

Church lawyers have denied that the church was informed of Rodrigue's pedophilia.

According to court papers in the civil case:

* In 1967, Rodrigue was sexually abusing children while he was assigned to St. John the Evangelist parish in Encinitas, according to his deposition. An unidentified dean, who worked for the bishop, confronted Rodrigue about "sexual misconduct" and Rodrigue was reassigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Calexico.

* In 1969, a boy told the pastor, associate pastor and housekeeper in Calexico that he regularly spent the night with Rodrigue. A year later another boy told the parish pastor that he had been fondled while naked by Rodrigue, who was not transferred for two years.

* In 1977, Rodrigue was assigned to St. George's in Ontario, where he was given a room with a private door. According to his deposition, he abused dozens of children there in 1975 and 1976.

* In 1979, he pleaded no contest to committing lewd acts with a minor. He pleaded guilty in 1997 to molesting a youth in his San Bernardino neighborhood, and served eight years in prison. He lives in San Bernardino County, according to the state attorney general's website.

*

john.spano@latimes.com

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