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Salesians fighting civil suit

Catholic order that has refused to join payout to abuse victims heads to trial over alleged molestations at school.

May 09, 2008|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Only one religious order refused to join the $660-million settlement the Los Angeles Archdiocese reached with hundreds of sexual abuse victims last summer: the Salesian Society. Across the country, the Roman Catholic order of priests has aggressively fought legal culpability for mishandling predatory priests, victims' advocates say. They continue to fight accusations as a civil lawsuit heads to trial over alleged abuse in the 1960s at St. John Bosco High School, a Salesian school in Bellflower.

Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Tuesday, and jury selection was completed Thursday.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that the Salesians knew Father Titian Miani, now 81, had been accused of preying on youths when they assigned him to St. John Bosco, where he allegedly molested four children, including three siblings.

Miani was criminally charged in the case in 2003, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's law on prosecuting decades-old abuse claims. More civil trials could follow involving other Salesian priests who worked in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

"We selected a jury; we're going to trial. The Salesians are a rogue arm of the Catholic Church. They are unrepentant, uncaring and have a culture of secrecy," said Raymond Boucher, the plaintiffs' attorney.

Steve McFeely, the Salesians' attorney, said the organization did not know that Miani had abused anyone before assigning him to St. John Bosco. "These are not open-and-shut cases. It requires notice of significant danger," he said.

Supporters of the school say they have been deeply stung by the allegations. St. John Bosco, founded in 1940 as a boarding and day school, occupies a special place in southeast Los Angeles County, graduating generals, politicians and engineers, they say.

"St. John Bosco is a pillar of the community," said Victor Muniz, class of 1963. "It instilled a sense of competitiveness and values."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles was dismissed as a defendant after paying $25 million to 17 Salesian victims as part of the global settlement, its lawyer, J. Michael Hennigan, said. But it retains a financial stake in the trial.

The archdiocese, its insurers and religious orders split the cost of the payout. But the archdiocese guaranteed that it would make up the difference if the pool fell short of the full $660 million.

Cardinal Roger Mahony had been counting on a substantial contribution from the Salesians.

Earlier this year, the Salesians went to the California Supreme Court, complaining that the global settlement gave Mahony an unconstitutional veto over efforts to resolve their cases.

In a court declaration, Father John Itzaina, a Salesian official, said Mahony, in a face-to-face meeting Feb. 14, told him, "I think this can all go away for $50 million and lawyers' fees."

Itzaina said that when he asked the cardinal "why he demanded such a high number, Mahony responded that he was still $74 million short" on the global payout to victims.

"The Salesians come last to the table and we are short $74 million," Hennigan said. "They had a full opportunity to come in proportionately."

The state Supreme Court refused to take the case, setting the stage for the trial. St. John Bosco supporters fear revelations will damage the reputation of Salesian schools.

Miani was accused as a young seminarian of molesting a 13-year-old boy at an Italian church retreat, and of sexually abusing at least three youngsters at a Salesian boarding school in Edmonton, Canada, according to court papers.

After his transfer to St. John Bosco, he befriended a family whose father had recently died. With the mother busy at work and night school, Miani would show up at the family home and molest the 15-year-old son and two daughters, the court documents said.

Miani left the order in 1974 but continued to serve as a priest until his retirement from clerical duties in 1993. His last known residence was Stockton, according to court papers.

Muniz said the day he heard the allegations "was one of most depressing days of my life."

"We knew these priests. We had a high opinion of them even in our fading memories."

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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For further information on Miani and other priests accused in the sexual abuse scandal, see The Times' searchable database at http://www.latimes interactive.com/priests

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