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HAYWARD — With one award in and another likely coming soon, attorneys involved in hundreds of priest molestation cases statewide are giving a hard look at the numbers. Last week, a jury awarded former San Jose altar boy Dennis Kavanaugh $437,000 in damages after finding the San Francisco Archdiocese knew or should have known Kavanaugh’s priest, Rev. Joseph Pritchard, had been a sexual abuser. But a much bigger award may be coming in the second clergy abuse case to reach trial. Former St. Ignatius altar boys Bob and Tom Thatcher are suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, alleging that it knew Father Robert Ponciroli had molested other altar boys years before he was transferred to their Antioch church. Unlike the Kavanaugh case, the Oakland Diocese has conceded negligence, and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard has opened the door to punitive damages. To some, the Kavanaugh award seems low. That’s because the Diocese of Orange County earlier this year settled almost 100 clergy abuse cases for about $1 million per plaintiff. But Martin Jaspovice, who is representing plaintiffs in dozens of suits against the Oakland Diocese, said he was “extremely pleased” with the award since Kavanaugh’s lawyers had relatively little physical evidence that church officials knew there was abuse. “Certainly, [the award] has some significance since it’s the lowest kind of case we have,” Jaspovice said. Los Angeles Foley & Lardner partner Stephen McFeely, who is representing defendants in the settlement talks, cautioned against reading too much into the Kavanaugh figure. “It’s a datapoint,” McFeely said. “Does that mean all cases are worth more than that, or less than that? No. It’s a datapoint.” In the Thatcher case, a series of memos tie Oakland Diocese Pastor Ponciroli with sexual misconduct as far back as 1975 — five years before he allegedly attacked the Thatchers at St. Ignatius Church. In his opening statement Monday, plaintiff attorney Rick Simons suggested jurors have an opportunity to send a message to church defendants statewide with their verdict. Warning the panel that Diocese lawyers would try to portray themselves as sincere and apologetic about past abuses, he encouraged them toward “a verdict that will prevent any of us from ever having to be here in these circumstances” again. In his opener, Oakland Diocese attorney Allen Ruby said the Diocese has changed, apologized, reached out to victims and has created new policies and procedures to prevent further crime. His message to jurors: Don’t get caught up in the hype. “There’s no dispute that [Bob Thatcher] is entitled to reasonable compensation,” Ruby said. “There is a dispute in regards to the amount of reasonable compensation.” Last year, about 150 cases involving Northern California churches — including the Oakland Diocese — were carved out of more than 800 lawsuits filed statewide. The Northern California cases are known as the Clergy III cases, while the 140 cases consolidated in the San Diego and San Bernardino areas are called Clergy II, and the more than 500 cases consolidated in the Los Angeles area are Clergy I. In December, the Catholic Diocese of Orange County agreed to a $100 million settlement with 90 plaintiffs in the Clergy I cases. As the Thatcher case gets under way, mandatory settlement hearings involving the Oakland Diocese will continue upstairs in Superior Court Judge David Hunter’s Hayward courtroom, where attorneys in about 50 cases are meeting weekly. It’s still unknown how many cases will reach a jury, or whether attorneys for the Diocese will be encouraged by the Kavanaugh verdict — and soon, perhaps, the Thatcher verdict — to settle. “Whether or not all these cases go to trial is a product of how good we are at negotiating, on both sides,” Jaspovice said.

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