Irwin Zalkin, Eddie Ortega on suit vs. San Diego Catholic diocese

The Rev. Gregory Sheridan was described as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — “the nicest man in the world, but inside … were demons.” Anthony Rodrigue, another deceased San Diego cleric, was called “one of the most prolific and horrible pedophile priests” a lawyer had ever seen.

But the greatest nightmare to local Roman Catholic leaders might be “treble damages.”

In a press conference Thursday announcing a half-dozen lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of San Diego and numerous local parishes, Attorney Irwin Zalkin wouldn’t put a price tag on how these and dozens of other legal actions in his pipeline might cost the diocese.

Still, Zalkin said a law that took effect Wednesday allows for the tripling of compensatory penalties if a cover-up can be shown at jury trials.

“I don’t think there’s any question we’ll be able to show there was a cover-up for decades,” he told eight TV crews and other reporters at a Carmel Valley area hotel.

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He said at least two local bishops — the late Charles F. Buddy and Leo T. Maher — would hide their “bad priests” in desert communities “where they thought the people there, mostly Hispanic, would not speak up.”

Zalkin said the bishop of Toledo gave Sheridan, already branded a predator priest, a letter and said: “You’re outta here. … If you can find some other bishop to take you in, good luck to you.”

Bishop Buddy of San Diego did, he said, accepting “problem priests.”

“He sort of thought it was his mission … to try to help them, when in fact there was no helping most of these guys,” Zalkin said at a 34-minute press conference.

Is a second San Diego bankruptcy filing possible — the first since 2007, when the diocese paid out nearly $200 million in a settlement with 144 adult victims of childhood sex abuse?

“I suppose that’s a possibility,” Zalkin said. “But from what we know and learned last time around, they have substantial assets, they have insurance.”

Lawsuits filed Thursday in San Diego Superior Court were made possible by recently enacted legislation allowing such legal action even if the alleged abuse occurred outside the statute of limitations.

The suits allege abuse in the 1960s and ’70s by now-deceased priests who operated throughout San Diego County. The victims were previously unable to pursue legal action against the diocese, but recently enacted AB 218 expands the statute of limitations and opened a three-year window starting this year for victims to file suit.

Zalkin said that each time abuse was discovered, priests were simply moved to other parishes where they could continue their behavior, with free access to new victims.

Zalkin’s office filed lawsuits Thursday on behalf of 20 San Diego victims, but he said around 60 additional complaints are still being prepared and would be filed within the next 60 to 90 days.

“This is only the beginning,” Zalkin said. “Now (the victims) have a chance to be heard and to hold this diocese accountable.”

Priests targeted in Thursday’s lawsuits are:

  • Robert Koerner, who worked out of a parish in Calipatria
  • Peter Marron, who served in San Diego
  • Alexander Pinter, who served in Vista
  • Joseph Rossell, who served in National City, San Diego, Carlsbad, El Cajon and Oceanside
  • And Sheridan, who served in San Diego, Ramona, and Fallbrook, and Rodrigue, who served in La Jolla, Lakeside, Encinitas, Poway and other locations in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties

Kevin C. Eckery, vice chancellor and diocese spokesman, released a statement Thursday decrying the actions of abusive priests and urging victims to contact the church for compensation and counseling, which they can receive whether or not they decide to take legal action.

“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,” Eckery said.

Complaints filed Tuesday:

“There are no prior conditions and the offer of counseling stands regardless of any lawsuit against the diocese. The sexual abuse of minors is evil, regardless of when it happens,” Eckery continued, “but as a result of various reforms in 2002 and earlier, including mandatory Safe Environment training for clergy and all church workers, annual age-appropriate safety training for students in Catholic schools and religious education, enhanced criminal background checks and enhanced awareness and vigilance, no new incidents of abuse have been reported to the diocese in nearly two decades.”

Zalkin began his remarks by saying: “We are here because the Catholic Church in general and the diocese of San Diego in particular (have) for decades covered up sexual abuse of children by known priests, known perpetrators within this diocese. We have a list of 51 of them. This isn’t complete. We know there are more.”

Sheridan was called the abuser of two clients at the press event — retired city parks and recreation staffer Luther Espy, 71, of the Legacy Walk area of Southeast San Diego and former nurse Edward “Eddie” Ortega, 72, of Valencia Park.

Two other alleged victims also attended but didn’t take questions — a 62-year-old named Joe and a jaunty-hat-wearing gentleman, 70, who for now is known as John Roe 55.

Zalkin said that after “certificates of merit” from health-care professionals are accepted by the court, potentially 66 plaintiffs may be named in amended complaints.

The lawyer with San Diego and New York offices warned the media that the diocese would apologize to the victims and remind them of the so-called Independent Compensation Program.

“We encourage victims to come to our fund, and we’ll take care of them,” Zalkin said the diocese would say, also suggesting the local Catholic leadership would argue victims wouldn’t need to go to lawyers and “We’ll be good to them.”

But Zalkin said the fund was set up over fear the statute of limitations was about to change — “when they knew they were going to be exposed to lawsuits and multimillions of dollars in damages.”

He called Kenneth Feinberg, overseeing the diocese payouts, a good man, citing his work for the 9/11 victims fund and the BP Deepwater Horizon victims program.

“But he still works for and gets paid by seven of the dioceses participating,” Zalkin said.

He said two of his clients got ICP offers — around $200,000 each — that he would consider an insult, “pennies on the dollar of the value of the loss of their lives as normal people…. I hope they don’t take the bait.”

Irwin Zalkin news release notes 125 cases throughout the state. (PDF)

Client Ortega, calling it a “privilege” to speak on behalf of fellow plaintiffs, said of abuse: “When something like that happens, something inside of you dies, and you don’t get it back.”

He said that between the ages of 11 and 13, when he was living in Encanto, he was brutally molested three times by Sheridan at St. Jude’s Academy, the now-closed Southcrest school.

“Everything that you could possibly think of a rape happened to me by this man,” he said.

“It was so violent he made me bleed in different places. … And then he expelled me to get rid of any evidence,” Ortega said. “He was gentle, but that’s what made him so criminal. … His eyes would get glassy. His face would get red, and he’d get close to you and just instill fear. … and lure you right into his trap.”

Ortega said all he felt was complete confusion — “like I was a bad person. I felt like I was a bad student. I felt like I wasn’t worthy.”

He said he didn’t come forth at an earlier one-year window for victims suits because he had completely blocked out the memories.

“You bury it because your mind is protecting you,” he said.

Attorney Zalkin, who works on a contingency fee basis “negotiated with everybody,” was asked whether he was competing with other law firms hoping to capitalize on the new law.

“I’m not competing with anyone, any other lawyers,” he said. “Our focus is on getting the word out that there is this new legislation, getting the word out to people that they have an opportunity to seek help and obviously we’ve been doing this work for decades.”

Zalkin added: “If people want to come talk to us, we’re available to talk to them. This isn’t like car-accident cases that you see on TV, with lawyers telling people how much they’re going to get.”

Updated at 12:50 a.m. Jan. 3, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.