The Roman Catholic Diocese of Yakima was not responsible for the sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy at a Zillah parish by a church deacon in 1999, a federal judge ruled last week.
U.S. District Judge Edward Shea on Thursday rejected arguments by the victim, identified in court papers as John Doe, that the diocese failed to properly screen the deacon when it accepted him as a priesthood candidate or that it failed to supervise him as he worked in the diocese.
There was no evidence to prove that the church knew or should have known that Deacon Aaron Ramirez posed a risk of misconduct, Shea wrote in his 34-page ruling.
“As we have said many times, we’re very sorry for the abuse Mr. Doe suffered,” Yakima Bishop Joseph Tyson said in a statement. “Our prayers are with him.”
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“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.”
In a trial held in March and April, Doe testified that Ramirez invited him to a trailer at Church of the Resurrection in Zillah for guitar lessons, plied him with alcohol and repeatedly raped him the evening of July 29, 1999.
Ramirez fled to Mexico shortly after the incident and has not returned to the United States.
Doe’s lawsuit, which also named the Zillah parish, sought $8 million in damages.
Bryan G. Smith, Doe’s attorney, said he would review the ruling with his client to decide whether to file an appeal.
“We felt there was more than sufficient evidence to show that the church knew, or should have known, about Ramirez’s activities on church property,” Smith said. “Clearly, there was negligence in the way they supervised him.”
Smith said the ruling found that a church employee abused someone on church property, which he said was a first for the diocese.
But Shea’s ruling also found that Doe failed to produce evidence that church officials knew Ramirez was likely to abuse boys, or did not properly screen his background.
“There is simply no evidence that (the diocese) knew of any indication that Ramirez had engaged in any misconduct, let alone sexual misconduct. Further, Ramirez was on his days off, miles from his assigned parish, visiting friends, and used the parish trailer without permission.” Shea said.
During the trial, Doe’s attorneys noted that a religious order in Mexico that Ramirez had earlier belonged to wrote that it had never been asked for a recommendation when Ramirez went to Yakima, and would have given a negative recommendation if asked.
Diocese officials said they had been unable to find Ramirez’s personnel file, which they said would have proved they had conducted due diligence on his background.
At trial, Doe’s attorneys had asked the judge to assume the file had contained negative information and had been destroyed. However, Shea ruled there was no evidence that happened.
Shea wrote in his ruling that he found testimony given by Bishop Emeritus Carlos Sevilla, who was the Yakima bishop at the time of the incident, and Monsignor John Ecker, who was responsible for recruiting priests in the 1990s, that Ramirez was vetted was credible.
After the 1999 incident, the diocese took steps to have Ramirez removed from the clergy in Mexico. While Ramirez was in Mexico, Sevilla wrote to him and met with him once.
Shea acknowledged criticism that Sevilla received for his supportive correspondence with Ramirez.
But in his ruling, Shea noted the bishop was working to remove Ramirez as a deacon while coaxing him to realize he would not be accepted as a Catholic priest in Mexico.
“And, while perhaps difficult for a lay person to understand, the Bishop was indeed ministering to a sinner within his priestly duties,” Shea wrote.