April 14, 2005 in Nation/World

Brothers win abuse settlement

Kim Curtis Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Bob Thatcher, right, and his brother, Tom Thatcher, left, are hugged by attorney Jeff Anderson after a verdict Wednesday in a Hayward, Calif., courtroom.
(Full-size photo)

HAYWARD, Calif. – A jury Wednesday awarded nearly $2 million to two brothers and former altar boys who were molested by a parish priest more than two decades ago.

The brothers had sought $27 million, but their attorney nonetheless said he was pleased the jury ruled that the Oakland Diocese acted with malice and awarded punitive damages.

Bob Thatcher, 34, won $875,000 in compensatory damages and $875,000 in punitive damages. His brother Tom, 33, was awarded $180,000 in compensatory damages. He had not sought punitive damages.

The brothers’ case is the first among 160 filed in northern California to seek punitive damages, which are designed to punish the diocese and help deter it from future misconduct.

“We exposed a lot of wrongdoing,” Tom Thatcher said outside of court. “The church was called despicable on the record. They say they have changed their ways and I hope they have.”

Bob Thatcher added: “It wasn’t about the money. What the jury said today is the abuse that occurred to me and my brother shouldn’t have happened. It could have been prevented.”

There was no immediate word on whether an appeal was planned. The Rev. Robert Ponciroli, 68, has been removed from public ministry and now lives in Florida.

The brothers argued the church knew Ponciroli was sexually abusing children but failed to stop him. “The jury decided the policy and practice within the diocese of Oakland was to protect pedophile priests over children,” said their lawyer, Rick Simons.

The former altar boys said they were molested when they were 9 or 10 at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch by Ponciroli, who lured each boy upstairs to his bedroom after asking them to come to the rectory to pick weeds.

Diocesan lawyers do not dispute the abuse occurred but disagree wih the claim that the diocese was responsible for the anxiety, relationship, and drug and alcohol problems the men suffered later.

The case is the second to go to trial among 160 lawsuits filed in northern California. In the first, a jury last month awarded $437,000 to a man abused in the early 1970s by the late Rev. Joseph Pritchard, a former San Jose pastor.

More than 750 civil lawsuits were filed against Roman Catholic dioceses in California after the state in 2002 temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for filing sex-abuse claims.

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