A judge has ruled that one of two brothers who lost a priest molestation civil trial against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno this year can have a new trial.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black ruled that new evidence discovered by the plaintiffs shows that church officials may have known about the molestations in 1967. He wrote that a second trial could “very likely” result in a different verdict.
A jury found in April that Monsignor Anthony Herdegen had molested George and Howard Santillan, both former altar boys, between 1959 and 1973 at St. John’s Catholic Church in Wasco. But in a 9-3 decision, the jury also found that the Fresno diocese was not liable for Herdegen’s actions because church officials didn’t know about the molestations at the time. In a civil trial, at least nine jurors must agree on a verdict.
The brothers had sought $20 million from the diocese. Black’s ruling, which was dated Friday, granted Howard Santillan’s motion for a new trial.
But he denied George Santillan’s motion for a new trial because George Santillan says that the abuse against him stopped in 1965. The new evidence suggests that church officials were not alerted to the abuse until 1967.
“Obviously I would have liked to seen the motion for a new trial denied for both plaintiffs, but Judge Black made his decision and that’s the way it will be,” said Rosemary McGuire, one of the diocese’s attorneys.
Neither of the brothers’ attorneys, Jeff Anderson and Tony DeMarco, could be reached to comment Monday.
Last week, the plaintiffs’ attorneys told Black that another former altar boy from St. John’s Catholic Church says that Herdegen molested him in 1967.
At the time, the 10-year-old boy and his mother raised the molestation allegation with a nun, who was the principal at a church-run school. The nun had a duty to report the allegation to the diocese, the attorneys 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 at the trial in April, the jury might have found in favor of the Santillan brothers.
Anderson said he didn’t learn about the former altar boy’s allegation until after the jury started deliberations.
McGuire said she hasn’t reviewed the former altar boy’s statements, but acknowledged that the new evidence would likely be a key issue in a new trial.
The Santillan 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 conduct. 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.