Monday, January 28, 2008

Siblings file abuse lawsuit against Catholic order

Three siblings who say they were molested as children by the same Los Angeles priest filed new allegations of abuse this week against a worldwide religious order, which is the only Roman Catholic organization involved in the 6-year-old clergy scandal that has yet to settle any civil claims.

The three allege the Salesian Society, with 16,000 priests, ignored clear signs that Father Titian Miani was a dangerous pedophile.

Over the years, he was placed in a succession of church roles in different locations, including a boys orphanage in Canada and a boys school in Bellflower, where he preyed on more than a dozen children, according to the civil lawsuit.

The allegations, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, contend that the Salesian Society routinely transferred its accused members "often internationally" and placed loyalty to clergy "far above the duty to protect poor and vulnerable children." The siblings alleged that Miani abused them repeatedly in the mid-1960s.

"We abhor any abuse, especially of the young, be it sexual or psychological, physical or emotional," said Father John Itzaina, second in command of the Salesians on the West Coast. The Salesians do not defend Miani, Itzaina said, but "absolutely deny" the order had any notice that he posed a danger to youth.

Records in the case show that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles sent at least one letter to the Salesians alerting them to allegations that Miani had abused a child.

Miani was charged with molesting children in 2003, but a month later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled California's attempt to criminally prosecute decades-old sexual abuse cases was unconstitutional. Although criminal charges were prohibited, a state law in 2002 gave alleged victims one year to make civil claims regarding older instances of abuse that would have been barred by statutes of limitation.

The Salesian order is the only Roman Catholic organization sued in civil court in California that has not yet settled claims based on that law.

The Salesians refused to join in a $660-million settlement between the Los Angeles Archdiocese and more than 500 plaintiffs who said they were abused.

The civil case involving Miani is scheduled for trial in March and represents the first time a jury will be asked to decide the church's culpability. A judge recently ruled that there is evidence the Society acted with "malice and oppression" in failing to protect children, potentially opening the door for punitive damages.

Itzaina said a costly verdict against the religious order might bankrupt it. He said he "hopes and prays" a settlement can be reached before trial.

Miani's personnel file, portions of which were disclosed in Superior Court, shows he was accused of assaulting a young boy on a church retreat in Italy in 1947. Miani was later transferred to a Salesian Society boys home in Edmonton, Canada, where at least three students alleged he was a sexual molester.

Miani was then transferred to two four-year stints at St. John Bosco High School near Bellflower, the second as vice principal. It was at the high school where he allegedly molested the three siblings -- a boy and his sisters. Miani, now 80, last served as a parish priest near Stockton and has denied any wrongdoing in pretrial statements.

According to the lawsuit, Miani traded on his spiritual and educational authority to prey on the three children, whose father had died suddenly in 1965. Their mother, a seamstress and devout Catholic with four children, was forced to return to work and night school. She had a regular schedule and left her son, the oldest child, in charge of his three sisters in the evening.

Miani had approached the family after the father's death, and the mother welcomed him as a strong male influence, she said in a deposition. The boy, then 15, befriended by the gregarious priest, was repeatedly sexually molested by him, both in Miani's office at the Bellflower high school and on field trips to the San Bernardino Mountains, according to the victim's deposition.

At the children's family home in Norwalk, Miani familiarized himself with the mother's schedule and began showing up on the nights when she was away at school or work, the suit alleges. The boy would hide as soon as Miani showed up to avoid further molestation, he testified under oath.

Left with the three girls, Miani would pick one, take her to a back room and molest her, two of the daughters have stated in depositions. One of the daughters is not part of the lawsuit, although lawyers contend she was also molested. The Times does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

One of the girls said she told her Los Angeles priest of the abuse when she was preparing for marriage 15 years ago.

"He told me I was old enough to know better," she testified in a deposition last year. She then complained to the high school, but was told that Miani was dead, she said in a sworn statement.

"For 60 years they knew about this guy," said Anthony M. De Marco, lawyer for the siblings who developed the case, "and they have not done one thing responsible about it."
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