The attorney for two former altar boys who claim a Roman Catholic priest molested them in Antioch asked a jury Tuesday to impose $27 million in damages, a figure one church attorney said was unwarranted and “pulled out of the air.”
The Rev. Robert Ponciroli victimized Tom Thatcher, 33, and his brother Bob, 34, two decades ago because the Oakland Diocese knew he was a pedophile but did nothing about it, their attorney Rick Simons said in his closing arguments.
“So many red flags, and to each red flag, a green light,” Simons told a jury in the Hayward courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard. “They made a choice to protect offending priests over children.”
Simons asked the jury to award $6 million to Bob Thatcher and $3 million to Tom Thatcher in compensatory damages. The attorney also suggested awarding $18 million in punitive damages to Bob Thatcher, who said he had been molested several times by Ponciroli. His younger brother said the former priest had tickled him.
Ponciroli, 68, who had been assigned to churches in Richmond, Castro Valley and Antioch, was removed from public ministry years later and now lives in Florida.
Church officials knew Ponciroli had acted inappropriately with altar boys when they transferred the priest — described by the Thatchers as an angry, foul-mouthed, 300-pound man — to St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch in 1979, Simons said.
“They sent him with the language and temperament of a sailor and the hands of a child molester,” Simons said, accusing the church officials of engaging in a code of silence.
Church attorney Allen Ruby reiterated to the jury in his closing arguments that the Oakland Diocese had already admitted negligence in its supervision of Ponciroli and agreed that it was liable for compensatory — but not punitive — damages.
Ruby said while the church was sympathetic to the Thatcher brothers, they failed to present specific evidence — such as bills for therapy — that justified millions of dollars in damages. Ruby suggested that $250,000 to $400, 000 in damages to each brother was more realistic.
The attorney dismissed outright any notion of punitive damages, saying, “It’s an invitation to make something up, to guess, and I submit that is totally wrong.”
Ruby added, “The diocese has worked pretty hard to improve its procedures and protect children. They’re not perfect.”
Simons said the trauma suffered by the Thatchers couldn’t be quantified. There is no “measuring stick of the immeasurable,” Simons said.