The Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have reached a combined $10 million settlement in a clergy child sex abuse case involving two of Orange County’s most notorious predators, attorneys with a high-profile sexual abuse law firm announced on Friday, Jan. 26.
The settlement — which includes $9.5 million from the Diocese of Orange and $500,000 from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — heads off what was expected to be among the first to go to trial of a massive wave of lawsuits filed against Roman Catholic dioceses statewide by now-adult survivors who were given a three-year window under state law to file civil complaints regarding decades-old abuse.
It is believed to be the single largest settlement received by an individual against a religious organization, said attorney Morgan Stewart, whose Irvine-based firm — Manly, Stewart & Finaldi — represents more than 200 alleged clergy sexual abuse victims across the state.
“This is demonstrative of the acknowledgment of their failures,” Stewart said of the church leaders. “Our client wanted this resolved and wanted it resolved at a number that recognized their responsibility and harm.”
Asked for comment about the settlement, Diocese of Orange officials said their “foremost goal has been to address these cases and offer support and healing to all those affected…
“While we do not comment on settlement details, it is important to note that the allegations in this case date back more than 40 years and do not reflect the Diocese of Orange as it stands today nor capture our extensive efforts over the past two decades to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults and prevent future abuse,” Diocese of Orange Spokesman Jarryd Gonzales said. “The Diocese of Orange deeply regrets any past incidences of sexual abuse, and we remain unwavering in our commitment to protecting children and vulnerable adults and supporting those suffering.”
Officials with the Los Angeles Archdiocese declined to comment on the terms of the settlement. But in a statement church officials noted that one of the accused priests was at a parish that was under the control of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles until the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976. The abuse occurred later, church officials added, when the parish was no longer part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The lawsuit centered on the actions of Father Eleuterio Ramos, who before his death admitted to sexually assaulting more than two dozen boys during a decades-long career that included stops in multiple parishes in Orange County, along with Father Siegfried Widera, who at the time of his death was one of the most wanted sex crime fugitives in North America.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit described being molested by Ramos beginning at the the age of 5 in 1979 or 1980 when he was a minor parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Santa Ana. He was later sexually abused by Widera around 1984 and 1985, when he was about 10 years old, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also brought to light new evidence that the victim’s attorneys described as bolstering their long-held contention that church leaders at the time knew about the sexual abuse of minors and actively covered it up.
The attorneys previously filed a sworn statement by a now-retired alcohol counselor who worked at a treatment center for clergy members in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s. Father Ramos was admitted to the center after Diocese or Orange leaders referred him for treatment related to alcoholism and “sexual impulses related to sexual abuse of minors,” the counselor wrote in the statement.
The diocese leaders also overruled the counselor’s recommendation that Ramos not be placed back into the ministry, the counselor wrote in her statement. The counselor added that she learned it was common practice at the time for Bishops who referred priests to treatment for abuse of minors to then move those priests to other parishes or churches upon their return.
Victims’ attorneys say such actions by church leaders served to hide abusers like Ramos and kept them out of the view of law enforcement.
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Diocese of Orange officials say they have since created a “comprehensive safe-environment system,” including requiring that clergy, employees and volunteers undergo fingerprinting, background checks and “recurring safe environment training.”
The combined impact of the new wave of sexual abuse lawsuits on the various dioceses is yet to be seen. Roughly 2,000 Southern California childhood sexual abuse cases involving the Catholic church filed during the three-year window — including around 200 related to the Diocese of Orange — are still working their way through the court system. Those involving the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have been consolidated and assigned to a Los Angeles judge.
A little less than two decades ago, a previous wave of similar lawsuits ended with settlements before jury trials, including a $100 million settlement by the Diocese of Orange covering 90 cases followed by a $660 million settlement by the Los Angeles Archdiocese involving 508 cases.
The new wave of lawsuits has already led several other dioceses in California to either file for bankruptcy or consider doing so, including the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the Diocese of Oakland and the San Francisco Archdiocese. Leaders of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange have given no indication that they are considering similar plans.