First California church abuse cases set for trial

.- Two California dioceses are scheduled to go to trial March 14 for cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests. These trials are the first of about 150 civil suits filed throughout the state by more than 850 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests since the statute of limitations was temporarily lifted in 2002, reported the Associated Press.

In December 90 lawsuits against the Diocese of Orange County were settled out of court with a record $100-million settlement. Lawyers continue to sit in settlement talks for dozens of other lawsuits.

The trials Monday will be heard in Alameda County Superior Court before two separate judges.

A man in his mid-40s, who alleges abuse by the late Fr. Joseph Pritchard, reportedly filed the case against the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Pritchard died of cancer in 1998 before allegations became known.

With millions of dollars potentially at stake, archdiocesan spokesperson Maurice Healy told the San Francisco Chronicle that a percentage of settlement costs would be covered by insurance.

In a letter Feb. 25, Archbishop William Levada promised Catholics in San Francisco "fair and reasonable settlements with victims of abuse by clergy and church employees."

However, he also assured that "the parishes, schools, day care centers, clinics, and other social services people depend on are there and available for all who need them."

The case against the Diocese of Oakland may be delayed after a judge ordered a settlement conference for Monday, reported the AP.

Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland would prefer that cases be settled out of court, attorney Stephen McFeely told the Contra Costa Times. McFeely is a lawyer for the diocese.

"The bishop is hoping mediation works," diocesan spokesperson Fr. Mark Wiesner told the AP.

Church insurance carriers would likely pay the majority of any settlement or negative judgment against the diocese, reported the Contra Costa Times.

The suit against the Diocese of Oakland was filed by a 34-year-old former altar boy, who now lives in Arizona. The man claims he was abused by former priest Robert Ponciroli, 68, who now lives in Florida. According to the AP, the former priest is not a defendant in the case. A second claimant in that same case is the man's brother.

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