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When California last year gave adults who were allegedly sexually abused by clergy members as children one year to file otherwise time-barred civil suits against churches, a surge of business hit lawyers’ offices. More than 60 plaintiffs filed complaints against the San Francisco archdiocese in 2003, and attorneys from the Bay Area to St. Paul, Minn., are working on the cases. Some had never been involved in a case alleging sexual abuse by clergy. Others have been handling such cases for years but saw that business swell in 2003. “There was a significant increase in the number of priest abuse cases I had last year,” said Michael Meadows of Walnut Creek’s Casper, Meadows & Schwartz, who filed his first case against a diocese in the early 1990s. The financial stakes can be high for the clients as well as their lawyers. The archdiocese’s lead defense firm in the cases, San Francisco’s Tobin & Tobin, bills by the hour, though partner Paul Gaspari declined to specify the firm’s rate. But while Gaspari has seen some such cases resolved quickly, others have taken years to wend their way through appellate courts, he said. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, typically agree to contingency fees of one-third to 40 percent, a standard in personal injury cases. Attorneys on both sides are reluctant to say how much money plaintiffs are seeking in the cases against the San Francisco archdiocese, but settlements and judgments in some similar cases have reached the millions. In January, for instance, the Diocese of Oakland agreed to pay $3 million to a woman who, as a young girl, was raped by a priest, the Los Angeles Times reported. And in 1998, a California jury awarded two brothers $30 million, later reduced to $13 million, in a case involving the Diocese of Stockton, the Times reported. In California, after victims of childhood sexual abuse turn 26 years old they normally lose the chance to sue the perpetrator’s employer for damages. But on the heels of the 2002 Boston Globe series on the Boston archdiocese covering up sexual abuse by priests and the resulting scandal, California lawmakers temporarily lifted that statute of limitations from January to December 2003. At the end of January, the San Francisco archdiocese faced at least 66 plaintiffs complaints filed in 2003, the church reported. In February, Gaspari said that number was still in flux because some cases may have since been resolved and others may have yet to be served on the church. LONGSTANDING RELATIONSHIP The archdiocese has turned to Tobin & Tobin for outside and real estate counsel for about a century, said Gaspari, whose own defense experience in clergy misconduct cases dates back to 1986 . One of the original members of the firm, which was founded in 1852, advised San Francisco’s first archbishop, Joseph Sadoc Alemany, Gaspari noted. In January, Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold partner Nicholas Heldt joined in as defense co-counsel on some of the archdiocese’s cases. Heldt says he’s spent about 20 years defending institutions against accusations that they failed to prevent child molestation. While those cases have accounted for roughly 20 to 25 percent of his practice on average in the past, he said, “This year, it’s likely to be 100.” On the plaintiffs side, a handful of lawyers are working on most of the 2003 cases against Catholic dioceses in Northern California, while several other attorneys represent one, or a few, clients. Stockton personal injury lawyer Laurence E. Drivon is part of a five-lawyer “consortium” that represents 464, or about 60 percent, of the roughly 800 alleged victims he estimates filed cases in California in 2003. He’s worked on child sexual abuse suits involving clergy members for more than a decade. Other consortium members working on cases against the San Francisco archdiocese include Hayward attorney Richard Simons, Sacramento lawyer Joseph George and St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson. The fifth, Beverly Hills lawyer Raymond Boucher, is working on Southern California cases. Anderson, who doesn’t belong to the California Bar but consults on the cases, says he’s represented more than 700 clients allegedly abused by Catholic clergy. “This is my life’s work.” George says clergy sexual abuse cases have trickled into his office over the years, but now, “it’s exploded.” A psychologist as well as a lawyer, George says he’s “sort of known as the sex abuse guy” because his practice has historically focused on mental health malpractice cases, and he’s also handled some child sexual abuse cases. For some of the lawyers, a high-profile case or word-of-mouth helped them land clients involved in last year’s wave of clergy abuse cases. San Jose civil litigator Robert Tobin notes that his first case against a religious institution over sexual abuse allegations ended with a $7.5 million settlement in 2002 — right around the time the clergy abuse issue was heating up in California. In that case, he worked with San Jose lawyers Robert Mezzetti IIand Jean Starcevich to represent two brothers who sued one of the country’s 10 Jesuit provinces. Now the three lawyers are representing about 10 clients suing the San Francisco archdiocese and another 30 or so in similar cases from Seattle to San Diego. “Most of those cases that we have now stemmed from exposure that we got from that one case,” Mezzetti said. Oakland lawyer John Winer tried attracting clients through the Internet, though he says word-of-mouth proved more successful. Winer put up a Web site, www.priestabuselawfirm.com, to remind potential clients of the Dec. 31 filing deadline, and to advertise his firm’s expertise. But the Internet didn’t bring him many viable clients, he said. Most people who came to Winer’s office through the Web couldn’t establish that the church knew or should have known of a priest’s abuse in their cases, as required under the 2002 change to the law, he said. The few viable cases he got last year came through attorney referrals, Winer said. He has represented molestation victims for more than two decades. Then there are plaintiffs lawyers who are working on at least a small share of the 2003 cases even though they had never sued a church over sexual abuse by clergy. San Francisco lawyer David Mattingly, who often practices business and civil rights litigation, says he got his first and only abuse case involving a priest through word-of-mouth. San Francisco attorney Charles Geerhart’s previous experience with sexual abuse cases focused on day care centers. But last year, the name partner at Paoli & Geerhart took on two cases against California archdioceses. The first came through the Bar Association of San Francisco’s lawyer referral service, where he’s listed as a personal injury lawyer, Geerhart said. The second client was referred by a non-lawyer acquaintance. “That was an example of just being in the right place at the right time,” Geerhart said. Hayward attorney Simons, of the five-lawyer team handling many of the cases statewide, said three decades of wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases prepared him to work with expert witnesses and quantify emotional damage, but the clergy abuse cases offer a new challenge. It can be difficult to convince a jury that a church would cover up child abuse, Simons said. “These are less understandable,” he said, “than �OK, I was on a scaffold and it collapsed.’” Defense lawyer Gaspari notes the church has never had to defend a slew of cases that took place so long ago. “We’ve got situations where the institutional defendant is trying to defend against something that allegedly happened 20 to 30 years ago,” Gaspari said. “And the alleged perpetrator is not before the court.” OVERSIGHT IMPROVING Sometimes, the church might question whether the abuse occurred, but often an archdiocese argues it couldn’t have known what was going on, Gaspari said. Maurice Healy, director of communications and outreach for the San Francisco archdiocese, says the church is improving its oversight of priests. Healy says alleged incidents have dropped significantly since the 1960s and �70s, noting that the archdiocese has logged six allegations against five priests since 1990. And in the wake of the Boston scandal, he points out, Catholic bishops in the United States passed mandatory guidelines for the church to respond to allegations of abuse. “We’re trying to deal fairly with victims who are legitimate victims,” Healy said. Now a battle is brewing over whether Northern California should follow Southern California’s lead and coordinate cases against multiple archdioceses. Lawyers for the San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Monterey and Stockton dioceses asked the Judicial Council of California in January to coordinate their proceedings in Santa Clara County Superior Court. Coordination, they argue, would reduce the need for duplicate motions and discovery, and the risk of inconsistent rulings, court papers say. “It’s an opportunity to streamline and reach a fair and consistent resolution across the board,” said Gaspari, who’s defending cases on behalf of three of the dioceses. The San Francisco archdiocese alone is defending cases in San Francisco, Marin, Alameda and Santa Clara superior courts, Gaspari said. But many of the plaintiffs’ lawyers oppose the petition to coordinate. “It will cause delays in the cases, many of which are otherwise going to resolve because they have trial dates,” Simons said. Gaspari acknowledges a given case may move slower but contends that, “at the end of the day, all of the cases will reach a resolution faster in a coordination proceeding.” At least one plaintiffs attorney agrees with the defense on that point. “We always like court supervision of cases, because it tends to move things along, which means justice sooner for our clients,” said Mary Alexander, a San Francisco personal injury lawyer with two cases against the local archdiocese. “And the other side isn’t as likely to be able to play games.”

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