‘House of evil’
Law firm expects to file hundreds of lawsuits against California Catholic dioceses in coming weeks
Standing in a hotel near the Oakland waterfront, James Brogan didn’t quite know where to begin, so he did something most sexual assault survivors don’t do—he gave his name.
“It’s wrecked my entire life, every aspect of my life,” he said, not looking past the lectern behind which he stood. “Where do you go?”
Because of a new California law, Brogan and countless other survivors of rapists masquerading as holy men can go to court.
Brogan is a plaintiff in one of a dozen new lawsuits against eight California Catholic dioceses that a law firm filed in concert with a new state law. Jeff Anderson & Associates, a national law firm that represents survivors of clergy sexual abuse, announced the lawsuits in a series of wrenching press conferences designed to spread awareness of Assembly Bill 218, also known as the California Child Victims Act.
Anderson said the law will help survivors expose hundreds of perpetrators and “excavate” thousands of pages of documents that reveal how far church higher-ups went to protect pedophiles.
“What it allows these survivors and any survivors of sexual abuse in California to do is to take action,” said Anderson, whose firm is preparing to file hundreds of cases in the coming months. “In these cases, it was the Diocese of Oakland and the Catholic bishops in Oakland that made the conscious choice to protect these offenders—and many others.”
The firm is partnering with other attorneys around the state, including Joseph C. George, who last month sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento on behalf of a man who alleges that he was abused by two of its priests as a child in the 1980s. The diocese added both clerics to its “credibly accused” list after the allegations came to light, George’s firm said.
Authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, AB 218 took effect Jan. 1 over the vociferous—and previously successful—opposition of the Catholic church. The San Diego Democrat’s measure extends—but doesn’t erase—the deadline that child victims of sexual assault face if they want to sue their abusers in civil court.
Before AB 218, a survivor had to file a lawsuit within eight years of reaching adulthood or within three years of realizing the damage suffered from the abuse, whichever came later. AB 218 relaxes both statutes of limitations—giving survivors until age 40 or five years after their reasonable discovery of damages.
The measure also allows courts to triple the damages if church coverups paved the way for a child to be victimized.
“The idea that someone who is assaulted as a child can actually run out of time to report that abuse is outrageous,” Gonzalez said in an Oct. 13 statement, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed her bill into law.“We shouldn’t be telling victims their time is up when in reality we need them to come forward to protect the community from future abuse.”
On the final day of 2019, Brogan did just that.
He’s a grown man now—with tattooed forearms, studded earlobes, a snowy goatee and slicked-back hair. He was just an 11-year-old boy attending parish in Union City in the 1970s when Father George E. Crespin allegedly violated him. For Brogan, who spoke in tight breaths, there wasn’t much space between the past and present.
“It’s tough to feel like a survivor when I’m still suffering,” he said.
Brogan says he didn’t tell his family what happened for 40 years, even when his abuser oversaw his sister’s wedding. Instead Brogan turned to the bottle. “That’s the first day I started drinking,” he said softly.
Crespin, who was part of the Diocese of Oakland’s upper hierarchy, also “buried complaints of sexual predator priests,” said attorney Rick Simons. Crespin was at Our Lady of the Rosary at the same time as Father Stephen Kiesle, a serial pedophile who earned a nickname for the magnitude of his crimes.
“He was known as ’the Pied Piper’ because wherever he went the kids followed him around and there wasn’t a one he didn’t try and molest,” said Simons, who deposed Kiesle when he was incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison. “His victims number more than dozens—probably in the hundreds.”
Brian Barnes was one of those victims. He was 11 and growing up in Pinole when he says Kiesle assaulted him. He says he told his parents, but nothing much came of it. He didn’t try coming forward again until decades later, after the birth of his three daughters.
“When you’re by yourself, you think it’s just you and you don’t say much. You know, the world’s an ugly place,” Barnes said at the press conference. “And as I realized there were more and more survivors in our group from that small town, it empowered me to want to step up today.”
Not every victim can.
Brogan said he had a best friend, an altar boy at the time, whom Crespin also preyed upon. That friend recently committed suicide, Brogan shared.
Brogan cupped his chin and wrestled back tears. He gestured without looking at the posterboard with Crespin’s image on it, stately in his clerical collar, smiling eyes under bushy white eyebrows.
“It was the house of evil, most definitely,” Brogan said. “There’s people hiding from it and it was just so wrong. Not coming out and helping everybody—that would’ve been the right thing to do—but here I am trying to heal from that.”