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Sex Abuse by Priests in San Diego Catholic Diocese

Child sexual abuse is a horrifying act affecting children, families, and communities around the globe. Not receiving justice for an abuser’s wrong and vile actions can keep victims struggling with what happened to them and feeling hopeless. Accordingly, the California Child Victims Act (AB-218) went into effect on January 1, 2020, helping dozens of child sexual abuse survivors of the San Diego Catholic Diocese come forward to report their abuse.

AB 218 allows child sex abuse victims to file lawsuits against their abusers even if the abuse happened decades ago. San Diego victims subject to this Act reported abuse that dates back to the 1960s. This type of crime can have lifelong repercussions on the victims’ mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Many child abuse victims know who their abusers are, piling on the hurt, betrayal, and shame. Over the last few years, more victims are speaking out against the abuse they endured at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, adults sexually abused as children are speaking out against San Diego priests who harmed them.

No matter when your abuse happened, you may be entitled to compensation to help pay for your emotional, mental, and physical recovery via the new Act by extending the age at which you can file charges. No one can take away the pain of the horrific and traumatizing events that happened to you, but you do not have to suffer alone. Legislators passed this Act to help victims seek the justice they deserve and that’s long overdue.


The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative series on child sexual abuse happening at the hands of Catholic priests brought these types of cases to light after decades of harm had flown under the radar. In June 2002, the Roman Catholic Church of San Diego revealed that victims accused 23 priests of sexually abusing them as children. The timeline of the diocese sex abuse scandal then followed:

Since the 1980s, the Catholic Church has paid more than $3.8 billion in settlement payments to child sexual abuse victims. With the passage of AB 218 in California, victims can continue to fight for the justice they deserve against the priests that abused them and the church that failed to protect them.


In 2018, the LA Times reported that they would be investigating the abuse and the cover-ups that occurred in the Catholic Church, specifically how the leadership handled sex abuse accusations in the past.

That same year, the San Diego Diocese added the following eight priests to the list of those accused of abuse by the diocese:

  • Reverend Jose Chavarin
  • Reverend Raymond Etienne
  • Reverend J. Patrick Foley
  • Reverend Michael French
  • Reverend Richard Houck
  • Reverend George Lally
  • Reverend Paolino Montagna
  • Monsignor Mark Medear

The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego commented in their statement regarding new lawsuits: “Regardless of the legal issues involved, we have a moral obligation to provide assistance to any victim-survivor of that abuse and we would urge their attorney to contact us so that counseling can be arranged at our expense. There are no prior conditions and the offer of counseling stands regardless of any lawsuit against the diocese.”

Since January 2020, more victims have filed lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of San Diego and the priests that abused them. The church created a victim compensation fund in the fall of 2019, but victims’ funds fall short of expected fair compensation. The church expected more child sexual abuse survivors to come forward and file lawsuits within the last few years with the establishment of AB 218. Victims had until January 2023 to file their claims.


AB 218 allows child sex abuse victims to bring civil lawsuits even when their abuse happened decades ago. In the San Diego clergy abuse cases, the victims can also sue the abuser’s employer (the Diocese of San Diego). Catholic churches around the country (and the world) allowed the abuse to happen on an institutional level, making way for the victims to receive compensation from the institution itself and not just the abuser.

Child sexual abuse survivors can receive compensation for their damages, including emotional distress damages resulting from the abuse the institution allowed to happen. Claims or causes of action filed by child sex abuse victims can include:

Claims filed by child sex abuse victims



Negligent infliction of emotional distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress

Sexual Assault

The San Diego Diocese is currently dealing with the new wave of lawsuits filed but has already paid out victims in the past. Victims filing the most recent cases may be entitled to receive three times the amount of compensatory penalties if they can show at trial that the church or those involved with the church assisted in covering up the abuse. 

Due to the increased penalties, a second bankruptcy filing is possible. The first happened in 2007 after the church paid out almost $200 million to settle 144 adult victims’ claims. After the legal fees, the average payout to victims was $825,000 in San Diego and $780,000 to the 508 victims in Los Angeles.


Groups are working to end sex abuse in the church, but sometimes it’s not enough to rectify the pain caused to former child victims. Legal action is necessary to hold the church accountable and punish the abusers and those that enabled the abuse to happen by engaging in systemic cover-ups.

What’s the Difference Between Civil & Criminal Charges?

Child sex abuse victims can pursue both civil and criminal lawsuits against the abusers and the church. The processes and outcomes for each type of lawsuit differ.

In a civil case, the victim can sue for compensation to help pay for damages caused by the abuser. These damages can include mental, physical, and emotional trauma experienced during and after the abuse. No amount of money can make up for what happened to you or your child, but monetary support can help with the healing process, covering expenses for therapy, psychiatric treatment, and medications. In civil cases, child sexual abuse survivors initiate the lawsuit against their abusers and the church. A child sex abuse attorney can help you file and present your case.

Criminal retribution is meant to punish and potentially imprison the abusers to correct and deter similar future wrongdoing. For criminal cases, the state itself (e.g., the district attorney) brings charges against the abuser.

What Qualifies as Child Sex Abuse?

Many abusers target children they know and have proximity to. According to a study completed by John Jay College, many abusers groom children first to entice them to comply with the abuse. These enticements can include buying the child gifts, letting the child drive his car, or taking the child to sporting events. In many contexts, the study found that the abuser socialized with the victims’ families. Likewise, abuse commonly takes place at social events. Though, the most common location where abuse takes place is in the abuser’s home.

The study reported over twenty forms of sexual abuse, ranging from verbally harassing the child to penile penetration, against the accused Catholic clergy. Most abusers performed multiple types of abuse. The study found that only 9% of the alleged abusers limited the abuse to just improper touching over the victim’s clothing, 27% of the allegations involved the clergy abusing through oral sex, and 25% involved attempted or actual penile penetration.

Additional forms of child sex abuse include:


According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, child sexual abuse can have lifelong, lasting effects in the form of psychological damage. If a priest or clergyman abused you as a child, you can still seek help for that abuse and receive treatment for the psychological effects it caused you.

Many San Diego Diocese sex abuse scandal cases contain accusations that occurred in the 1950s and the 1960s. You can still file a child sexual abuse claim for abuse that happened decades ago. The California Child Victims Act (AB 218) allows a window for victims to bring legal action for past allegations. Bishop accountability is necessary, and this legislation is making such accountability a reality.

California Child Victims Act icon

What is the California Child Victims Act?

The California Child Victims Act is a relatively new law that California legislators enacted on October 14, 2019, to protect former victims of child sexual abuse and allow survivors to file claims for previously suffered abuse. The bill went into effect on January 1, 2020, and enabled survivors to file lawsuits through January 2023.

Before this law, California allowed victims to file civil claims only up to the age of 26. Now victims are encouraged to file lawsuits until 40 years of age or within five years of discovering their abuse and related damages, whichever time frame is later. This prolonged window of time to seek justice is paramount for survivors, as studies show that most victims do not speak out about their abuse until the age of 52.

Many struggle to come to terms with their abuse, preventing them from coming forward. The new law allows the acceptance and consideration of claims that were previously time-barred. Providing child sexual abuse survivors with another chance at justice is critical to punish the abusers and the institutions that allowed the abuse and to prevent re-offenders and protect children all over California and San Diego.

Speak out now and file your child sexual abuse claim to receive the compensation you deserve to support your continued healing.


If you experienced child sexual abuse, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible. To file your claim, follow these steps:

The non-profit organization Stop It Now! emphasizes the importance of having as much factual information as possible to detail your abuse. This information can include:

  • Name, date of birth, race, and gender of the people involved (e.g., abusers, people who knew about the abuse, and the abused child)
  • Addresses of the people described in item a
  • Information regarding any disabilities or limitations of the victims
  • Relationship between the alleged abuser and the victim
  • When and where the abuse happened
  • Any other relevant information that can help expedite the investigation

A lawyer can help you prepare and establish your claim. They can also file all relevant legal documents and represent you in court.

Your complaint should include all details related to your abuse, the liability of your abuser and the church, and the damages you seek. The named defendants to your lawsuit have an opportunity to file an answer to your complaint.

After the parties file the initial documents, the case proceeds to the discovery phase, where both parties request access to all evidentiary documentation they’ll need to support their respective claims. A child sexual abuse lawyer knows what documentation you need to substantiate your claim.

After both parties prepare their lawsuits fully and adequately, you will go in front of a judge (and sometimes a jury) to plead your case. Your attorney can address the court, opposing counsel, and witnesses for you at trial.

If either party does not agree with the lawsuit’s outcome, as the jury or judge decided, that party can appeal the decision, and the case will go to an appeals court. The appeals court can only consider issues of law. It cannot retry the facts of the case determined at trial.

Many cases end up settling. Your lawyer knows how to handle settlement discussions and negotiations to ensure you receive the compensation you deserve.

There are many resources for clergy abuse lawsuits to help you further understand your rights, see previous case outcomes, and determine how to file a claim.


A child sexual abuse lawyer can help abuse survivors improve the quality and effectiveness of their claim, navigate the legal processes properly, and maximize the amount of damages they can collect.

Many successful cases result from multiple victims filing claims against the institutions that enabled the abuse, leading to mass settlements. The benefit of showing multiple victims suffered at the hands of the abusers that the institution knew or should have known about is demonstrating the repeated pattern of negligence. This negligence (or cover-up) is what allows so many people to suffer harm, and the institutions, specifically the churches, should be held accountable for that.

Clergy abuse is devastating for victims and victims’ families. The lawsuits that victims filed and continue to file not only help monetarily but can also help send a message to other institutions that enable abuse that their neglect is punishable. In lawsuits that claim injunctive relief, victims can request that courts mandate that church entities take affirmative steps to prevent future clergy abuse. These supplemental legal actions can help prevent the same horrifying acts that transpired for decades from happening to future children.


Herman Law works tirelessly to empower victims by giving them a voice in the legal system. Dealing with the long-term effects of child sexual abuse by priests in the San Diego Catholic Diocese is an unimaginable hardship for which victims deserve justice. We will work with you to take control of the situation and help get your life back on track by holding your abusers accountable.
We spend the first 30 days developing your case by discussing strategy, implementing a plan, and diligently collecting the evidence you need to support your claim using our in-house Special Investigative Unit. These 30 days are crucial to successfully litigate your lawsuit against the San Diego priests accused of child sexual abuse. Herman Law handled over 1,000 sexual abuse cases and can help you find your voice to achieve the justice you deserve. Contact us now to learn more about how we can help get you compensated to support your continued healing and punish your abusers.