California Religious Order to Pay $6.3 to Settle Suits
December 24, 2004 Katherine Seligman
Chronicle Staff Writer
Three former students at De La Salle High School in Concord who say they were sexually abused by counselors or teachers have received $6.3 million to settle three lawsuits against the Catholic order that operates the school, attorneys and plaintiffs said Thursday.
The former students, all now in their 30s and 40s, say the alleged abuse by members of the Christian Brothers Order happened during the mid-1970s to early '80s. One man says a teacher molested him on a school-sanctioned ski trip, and a second says a counselor abused him at a youth retreat in Napa.
In a third case, a former student says a different counselor repeatedly molested him during sessions off campus. The Christian Brothers order, which runs the prestigious private school, had transferred that counselor to Concord despite knowing that he had relationships with "sexual overtones" at another school, according to a 1968 letter from a Christian Brothers provincial leader that came to light after the lawsuit was filed.
"His behavior around me was as if he was entitled to touch me at any time, " said plaintiff Chris Barbour, 41. He said the counselor had molested him during sessions that he had sought out as a result of an earlier incidence of sexual abuse unconnected to the Christian Brothers.
"Here I was, a molested kid and a freaked-out kid, and I end up with a man who had a history that the Christian Brothers were aware of," he said.
Barbour said he had suffered silently for years, then had eventually told his parents. Now an optometrist in Oregon, Barbour said he was still working to overcome the grief and shame he felt from the abuse. He said he had battled an eating disorder and his own sense of self-doubt.
Filing his lawsuit last year in Contra Costa County Superior Court, he said, helped him begin to recover.
"I feel like I am just beginning to have one foot over a line where I feel empowered," Barbour said. "Maybe these few evil men really are just that, just a few evil men, and I don't have to extrapolate into the rest of humanity. I can go out and maybe I can start to experience life, after 25 years."
Another plaintiff who also was too ashamed for years to tell anyone about the abuse said he felt that talking publicly about his case would help others.
"I was embarrassed," said Robert Fuller, now 37 and living in Oregon. "I didn't even admit it to myself for a long time. ... If there is a name and face in this, maybe it will inspire people to say, 'Maybe I'm not alone.' "
Fuller was a freshman when a teacher on the school ski trip got him drunk and sexually abused him, he said.
"One of the reasons my parents wanted me to go to De La Salle was because of concern about parties and drugs at the public school," he said. "It seemed safer. But look what happened. I was being molested by someone who was supposed to be the voice of God."
The plaintiffs were not identified by name in the lawsuits, all of which were filed in Contra Costa, but two agreed to be identified in The Chronicle.
In their lawsuits, the plaintiffs accused the Christian Brothers of covering up the alleged abuse. In the wake of this week's settlement, however, they and their attorneys credited the order with acknowledging what happened and trying to prevent future abuse.
The settlement comes at a time when the Catholic Church in Northern California is facing 150 lawsuits filed under the provisions of a 2002 law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on negligence claims for decades-old cases of child abuse. The abuse suits, which involve dioceses across the region, are being heard in Alameda County Superior Court.
Paul Gaspari, a lawyer representing the Christian Brothers' Western province, the De La Salle Institute, said the religious order was "pleased to be able to reach a settlement and put this matter behind us."
"They are committed to prevention of abuse and have prevention plans in place," Gaspari said. "We are sad and troubled by what happened 20 years ago. The institute has, for many years, cooperated with law enforcement."
None of the incidents, Gaspari said, happened at the school. Bruce Shoup, president of the school, could not be reached for comment.
The teacher and counselors, who are not named in the lawsuits, were not charged with crimes. Laurence Drivon, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the men were no longer associated with the Christian Brothers and "somehow escaped the system."
Richard Simons, another plaintiffs' attorney, said the Christian Brothers "are the first in Northern California to step forward and accept responsibility for the past and show a commitment and make sure it doesn't happen again."
"Part of that commitment is no secrecy," he said. "I hope the bishops and their armies of lawyers get an ounce of courage from what the Christian Brothers have done."
E-mail Katherine Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.