THE COUNSELOR=S CORNER
Did you hear the one about the woman who got punched out by the priest? No, this not a joke, and it has nothing to do with Cardinal Mahoney and his trying to keep from having to turn over records to the District Attorney=s office. This is the matter of 57 year old Maria Vega, a teacher at Saint Emydius Church in Lynwood. On November 16, 1999, Ms. Vega was minding her own business conducting her catechism class. Unfortunately for her, Father Dennis O=Neil, age 60 at that time and a priest at the church didn=t like what he was hearing. Father O=Neil did not agree with the manner in which Ms. Vega was teaching the principals of the Roman Catholic faith. Apparently Father O=Neil was unable to keep this disagreement amicable and resorted to fisticuffs landing a punch above the ear of Ms. Vega. She then reported this to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, was told they would investigate, but surprise, surprise, they let it go with no action being taken. Of course that may have something to do with the fact that the investigator assigned to the case was Monsenior Richard Lumis who until late February of this year had been appointed by Cardinal Mahoney to oversee sex abuse allegations. His title in this matter was Vicar General, however, he stepped down from this position and as pastor of a church in San Marino after molestation accusations were filed against him. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. He might not have been the best man to be overseeing Ms. Vega.
After getting nowhere with the Archdiocese, Ms. Vega reported the incident to the South Gate Police Department; however; the police officers told her there was nothing they could do. In the meantime, Father O=Neil=s career continued to blossom as he was promoted to the position of Auxillary Bishop. Ms. Vega finally contacted an attorney and her matter went to trial in October of last year. The trial took quite an interesting turn for 20 days into it, Father O=Neil passed away; coincidentally or not, the night after Ms. Vega testified against him. A mistrial was declared and the trial began anew. The Archdiocese offered to settle this case for $100,000, however, Ms. Vega turned it down. The new trial began in November and ended in December, and it may well have set a record for deliberation time as the jury considered this case for 82 days! That=s right, from December 16th, 2003 to March 8th, 2004 the jury deliberated regarding this matter. It may well be true that Aall things come to he who waits@ as the jury returned a $1,000,000 verdict against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The jury consisted of 3 Catholics and 9 Non-Catholics and ended with a 9 to 3 vote in favor of Ms. Vega. In personal injury cases, a unanimous vote is not required and 9 votes is the minimum necessary in order for one side to win. The 9 jurors who voted in favor of Ms. Vega included 8 Non-Catholics and 1 Catholic. They found in favor of Ms. Vega regarding the charges of battery, defamation, and emotional distress.
Her attorney was somewhat conflicted by this case; however; he was quite happy with the outcome. His name is Victor George and he indicated that as a Catholic, he was not particularly thrilled with the idea of suing his church, however, he took the case as he believed that Ms. Vega shouldn=t be punched by a priest, especially in the middle of a class she was teaching. I wonder how much credibility she had in that class when she came back after nursing her injuries to teach catechism.
The good news here is that Ms. Vega still teaches First Communion and she remains a Catholic. As Mr. George stated Ashe didn=t give up on religion, she just gave up on Bishop O=Neil.@
Despite the many twists and turns, it seems to me that justice has been served. I don=t know what Father O=Neil was thinking when he did what he did, and the fact that Ms. Vega got stonewalled by the church and then by the Archdiocese is outrageous and it seems to me that Ms. Vega has been suitably rewarded.
Of course the attorney for the Archdiocese indicates that the church disagrees and will request a new trial and perhaps appeal, however, if nothing else, they won=t be able to accuse the jury of not trying for in my 23 years of practicing law, I have never heard of a jury deliberating for 82 days. The moral of the story: priests shouldn=t punch.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger & Grover, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues. He can be reached at (818) 244-8694 or at www.charlieunger.com.