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Santa Rosa diocese pays $3.5 million to settle final pending molestation case

By Jeremy Hay, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 16--The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa has paid $3.5 million to a teenager who was molested by a Lakeport priest, one of the largest settlements paid out by the North Coast diocese in a series of sexual abuse cases that spanned more than two decades.

An attorney for the victim attributed the settlement's size partly to the church's failure to protect children from the Rev. Ted Oswald, even though it was aware he had abused others. Oswald molested the boy, then 12, in 2010, the same year the priest died, with some of the incidents taking place in the Lakeport parish church.

"But for the diocese's actions, it is entirely possible that this 12-year-old boy would never have been molested," said Skye Daley, the victim's attorney.

Bishop Robert F. Vasa, who has led the diocese since 2011, was on vacation Tuesday and unavailable for comment. Diocese spokesman Brian O'Neel rejected Daley's assertion.

"When the diocese became aware of this most recent allegation, they removed Father Oswald from ministry and reported the situation to civil authorities," O'Neel said. "The diocese could not do more than the civil authorities could."

The settlement, announced late Tuesday, resolves the last known such case against the diocese, O'Neel said.

In a statement, Vasa apologized to the boy and other victims who suffered at the hands of pedophiles in the church.

"I humbly apologize to this young person on behalf of the Church that failed to protect them. I also take this occasion to apologize to all victims for the harm done to them. This perversity, though prevalent in all parts of society, was allowed to persist in the Church for too long," Vasa said.

The diocese, which serves about 160,000 Catholics from Petaluma to the Oregon border, has paid about $25 million to sex abuse victims since 1990. The payment announced Tuesday appears to be one of the larger settlements for a single victim nationwide, experts said.

"Offhand, I can think of a couple of settlements higher, but I suspect that there haven't been many," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a victim support group.

A 2008 lawsuit involving two other Oswald victims -- who were abused between 1988 and 1995 -- was settled by the Santa Rosa diocese in 2009 for $1.3 million.

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The diocese paid out $5 million in 2007, but the settlement was split among five victims of the Rev. Xavier Ochoa, a Sonoma priest.

Tuesday's statement issued by the diocese was striking for the degree to which it conceded Oswald's guilt, which the diocese had not done in the 2009 settlement involving the priest.

Its first sentence was: "The Diocese of Santa Rosa today announced it has paid what it characterized as a 'significant settlement' to a victim of the deceased Fr. Oswald, who died in 2010."

Vasa said in the statement: "The settlement involves a lot of money. It does not, however, restore peace and tranquility to this child of God. I pray this can come in time."

The diocese did not reveal financial terms. Daley, the victim's attorney, disclosed the amount.

The money will be paid primarily from insurance reserves, according to the diocese. The settlement will not affect existing ministries and none of the funds will come from the diocese's Capital Campaign or Annual Ministries Appeal, O'Neel said.

Daley said his client was molested in 2010. By that time, he said, church officials already knew Oswald had abused other children.

"The church was on notice that Father Oswald was a child molester well before my child was ever abused," Daley said.

Daley filed the lawsuit in 2013, five years after the first lawsuit accusing Oswald of molesting children. The case, he said, included letters from then-Bishop Daniel Walsh stating "the allegations (outlined in the 2008 lawsuit against Oswald) were credible."

While pressuring Oswald to resign, the diocese had allowed him to remain a priest, Daley said. Although it forced him out of parish housing, the diocese approved his new home a mile from St. Mary Immaculate Church, the lawyer said.

The youth was an altar boy and a student at the parish school. He also participated in a youth group led by Oswald, according to the lawsuit. Some of the abuse, which involved plying the boy with alcohol and repeatedly groping him over a two-month period, took place in the church, Daley said.

Asked if Vasa's statement referring to Daley's client and other victims -- that "the church failed to protect them" -- was an acknowledgment that the diocese had any responsibility in the case, O'Neel said, "People will draw from it whatever they're going to draw from it."

In the statement, Vasa said the diocese has policies and procedures in place to deal with reports of sexual abuse but that "everyone in every parish and every school needs to cooperate with them" to ensure children's safety.

"Sadly, evil will still occur, but it will not ever be tolerated," he said.

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You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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(c)2014 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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