Judge to rule on new Fresno diocese trial


A judge said he will rule this week on whether to give two brothers a new trial against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno because of newly discovered evidence that backs their claim that they were molested by a priest, and that the diocese did nothing about it.

George and Howard Santillan sued the diocese for $20 million, but a Fresno County Superior Court jury ruled against them in April.

The jury said Monsignor Anthony Herdegen had molested the two former altar boys from 1959 to 1973 at St. John’s Catholic Church in Wasco. But the panel ruled that the diocese wasn’t liable because it did not know about the molestation at the time.

On Monday, the brothers’ attorneys, Jeff Anderson and Tony DeMarco, told Judge Donald Black that another former altar boy from St. John’s Catholic Church contends Herdegen molested him in 1967.

At the time, the 10-year-old boy and his mother told a nun, who was the principal at the church-run school, of the molestation allegation. The nun had a duty to report the allegation to the Fresno diocese, Anderson said.

It is not known whether the nun reported the allegation, but Anderson told Black that if the former altar boy had been given the chance to testify, the jury might have found in favor of the Santillan brothers.

The diocese’s lawyers, however, told the judge that the former altar boy was mentioned in the evidence that was turned over to the brothers’ attorneys. They said their opponents should have investigated the former altar boy’s claim before the trial. They also should have informed the judge when they learned of the former altar boy’s claim.

Anderson, however, said he didn’t learn about the former altar boy’s claim until after the jury started deliberations. Though the former altar boy’s name was among thousands of pages of documents, the diocese never mentioned his 1967 complaint, Anderson said.

Anderson said he didn’t tell Black right away of the allegation because there is no provision in the law to restart testimony once a jury begins deliberations.

Black took the arguments under advisement and said he will have a decision by the end of the week.

The brothers sued the diocese in 2003 under a one-year window that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on old abuse claims in California.

They contend the diocese was negligent in hiring, supervising and retaining Herdegen. They wanted damages for their pain and suffering, as well as money to pay for counseling.

To prevail, the brothers had to prove that the church knew or should have known about Herdegen’s unlawful misconduct. During the trial, church officials never denied Herdegen’s unlawful sexual conduct. The diocese’s attorneys told jurors that Bishop John T. Steinbock suspended Herdegen as a priest once he learned of the abuse in 2002.

The reporter can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6434.