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Judge rules Yakima diocese not at fault in assault case

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“During the last two decades” the Catholic church has “been repeatedly sued because bishops and others in authority sent priests known to have molested children to new assignments where they molested other children. This is not such a case,” a federal judge wrote in the introduction to a June 12 ruling that the Diocese of Yakima, Wash., is not liable for the 1999 sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy by a transitional deacon.

In a 34-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Edward Shea rejected arguments that the diocese failed to adequately vet Rev. Mr. Aaron Ramirez when it accepted him as a priesthood candidate from Mexico or that it did not adequately oversee him.

The plaintiff failed to prove the church knew or should have known that Ramirez posed a risk as a sexual predator, the judge declared.

The lawsuit sought $8 million. Calls to the plaintiff's legal firm to ask about a potential appeal were not immediately returned.

The deacon fled to Mexico after the incident and did not return to the United States, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported June 13.

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Shea presided over a seven-day trial in March, and heard closing arguments in the case April 20, according to a news release from the diocese.

"As we have said many times, we're very sorry for the abuse Mr. Doe suffered," Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson is quoted in the release. "Our prayers are with him."

"At the same time, we're pleased that the court recognized the diocese's strong legal position," the bishop said. "It is unfortunate we weren't able to settle this matter outside of trial."

Shea's ruling describes in some detail the events of July 29, 1999 in a trailer on the grounds of Church of the Resurrection Parish in Zillah, during which Ramirez allegedly provided the victim with excessive alcohol and sexually assaulted him during the night.

“On July 29, 1999, neither the diocese nor Resurrection had any knowledge of any prior misbehavior, or any prior inappropriate sexual behavior by Ramirez, nor any reason to know that he posed a risk of such behavior,” the judge stated in his ruling.

The Diocese accepted Ramirez as a candidate for priesthood in 1998, after he successfully completed seminary studies in Mexico.

While Ramirez's personnel file could not be located, the judge ruled that “the diocese did not willfully, intentionally, or in bad faith destroy or hide the Ramirez file which at some time prior to July 29, 1999, existed.”

“The diocese was able to reconstruct his seminary academic record, which showed he successfully completed the program, despite leaving one religious order to join another about halfway through the program,” its news release said.

Bishop Emeritus Carlos A. Sevilla, S.J., who accepted Ramirez into the diocese, "corresponded with him regularly after he fled to Mexico rather than be questioned about the abuse by authorities," the release added.

At the time of the assault, Ramirez was assigned to St. Peter’s Parish in Wenatchee, Wash. He told his pastor he was taking his two days off to visit friends in Zillah where he had worked as a seminarian.

According to the diocese, Sevilla engaged in a successful attempt to convince Ramirez to be laicized in 2001.

While acknowledging the criticism Sevilla received for some of his supportive correspondence, the “court finds that Bishop Sevilla was both managing the removal of Ramirez as a deacon while coaxing him to realize he would not be accepted as a Catholic priest in Mexico,” the judge stated. “And, while perhaps difficult for a lay person to understand, the bishop was indeed ministering to a sinner within his priestly duties.”

Doe, who brought the lawsuit in 2011 while living in Oregon, was offered counseling by the diocese following the abuse but declined, the diocesan release said. He graduated from Zillah High School in 2000, and settled in Oregon after attempting to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

 

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