Case against notorious California priest could be 1st in new wave of sexual abuse trials

A case involving a priest who was one of Orange County’s most notorious predators is expected to be among the first of a massive wave of lawsuits filed against Roman Catholic dioceses statewide that are set to go to trial next year.

More than fifteen years after a string of dioceses, including Orange County and Los Angeles, agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements related to hundreds of claims of clergy sexual abuse, an even larger wave of litigation is on the horizon, thanks to a state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for such cases, opening a three-year window for now-adult survivors to file lawsuits related to decades-old abuse.

According to attorney Morgan Stewart, whose high-profile Orange County-based firm — Manly, Stewart & Finaldi — is among those representing the numerous plaintiffs, roughly 2,000 Southern California childhood sexual assault cases allegedly involving the Catholic church were filed in Southern California during the three-year window, including roughly 250 against the Orange County Diocese.

The Orange and Los Angeles county lawsuits have been consolidated and assigned to a Los Angeles judge. One of Stewart and his firm’s lawsuits has been allowed by the judge to proceed to trial in Los Angeles, the attorney said, setting the stage for a trial early next year.

Father Eleuterio Ramos, who admitted to sexually assaulting more than two dozen boys during a decades-long career that included stops in multiple parishes across Orange County, is involved in the case, as is Father Siegfried Widera, who was one of the most wanted sex crime fugitives in North America at the time of his death.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit claimed he was molested by Ramos when he was a minor parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Santa Ana around 1979 or 1980, and later sexually abused by Widera when he was about 10-years-old around 1984 and 1985.

“It’s probably the worst case scenario (the diocese) could have gotten out the door,” Stewart said of Ramos. “He lacked discretion.” He didn’t put a stop to it. Nobody could stop him.”

Stewart claims he now has new evidence supporting victims’ attorneys’ long-held contention that church leaders at the time actively knew about sexual abuse of minors and covered it up.

A now-retired alcohol counselor who worked at a treatment center for clergy members in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s recalled admitting Father Ramos for treatment after Diocese of Orange leaders referred him for treatment for alcoholism and “sexual impulses related to sexual abuse of minors.” According to the former counselor’s statement, Diocese leaders overruled the counselor’s recommendation that Ramos not be reinstated in the ministry.

“I learned at the time that it was common practice for Bishops who referred us priests who abused minors to move those priests into other parishes or churches upon their return,” the counselor said in her statement. “This is what happened with Father Ramos, despite my concerns about his potential to re-offend.”

Stewart claimed that church leaders’ only concern at the time was “to hide these guys and send them out of the jurisdiction of law enforcement.”

“Where is the concern for kids?” Stewart explained. “That is going to inflame a jury beyond belief.”

The Diocese of Orange, according to Jarryd Gonzales, “remains steadfast in its commitment to eradicating abuse of children and vulnerable adults and to providing a voice and support to those who have suffered.” He mentioned that clergy, employees, and volunteers must now go through fingerprinting, background checks, and “recurring safe environment training.”

“The Diocese of Orange deeply regrets any previous incidents of sexual abuse,” he added. Those words are backed up by actions: for more than 20 years, the Diocese has made extensive and diligent efforts to protect children and vulnerable adults and prevent future abuse.”

In response to the lawsuit’s allegations, Gonzales stated that the church generally does not comment on pending litigation, but that discovery — the exchange of information between attorneys about witnesses and evidence expected to be presented at trial — in the case is in the “very early stages.”

“The Diocese intends to let the facts uncovered during discovery guide its response to this lawsuit,” Gonzales stated. “As for an alleged cover-up, the plaintiff’s allegations — which date back to 1979 — were never brought to the Diocese’s (or law enforcement’s) attention prior to the lawsuit’s filing in 2020.”

The previous wave of childhood sexual abuse lawsuits resulted in pre-trial settlements, including a then-record $100 million settlement by the Diocese of Orange covering 90 cases in 2004, followed by the Los Angeles Archdiocese settling 508 cases for $660 million in 2007. In Orange County, church leaders apologized to the victims as part of the settlement.

The new wave of lawsuits has already prompted several California dioceses, including the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the Diocese of Oakland, and the San Francisco Archdiocese, to file for bankruptcy or consider doing so. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange have stated that they do not intend to file for bankruptcy.

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