Sheriff deputy accused of shaking down Roman Catholic priest
December 29, 2009
By KAREN VELIE
A San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s deputy has filed a civil claim seeking an unspecified amount of money against a Roman Catholic priest whom he said emotionally traumatized him during an undercover sting operation.
Claiming personal injuries, Sheriff’s Deputy John Franklin filed a civil claim against a Roman Catholic priest he arrested in 2007 for lewd conduct in a public place near Avila Beach. Franklin claims he suffers “mental and emotional distress including feelings of anger, rage, disgust, revulsion and embarrassment as a result of the despicable and oppressive behavior” of the former assistant pastor of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Nipomo.
“It is not so much monetary as a position of principal he is seeking. My client is making a statement that this is not acceptable behavior,” said James R. Murphy, the deputy’s attorney.
Church officials, their attorneys and the priest’s attorney contend Franklin is attempting to strong-arm the priest and the church for monetary gain.
“I think John Franklin is just looking for money,” said Thomas Riordan, vicar for temporalities for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey, which includes San Luis Obispo County. “We continue to be surprised by his actions.”
On July 18, 2007, Franklin was working undercover at the area around Pirate’s Cove, a nude beach with a reputation as a hook-up spot for homosexuals, when he spotted the priest, Geronimo Cuevas, standing in the brush rubbing his genitals through his shorts.
“I asked him (Cuevas), ‘What have you got over there,” Franklin said in the arrest report. “With his right hand he motioned for me to come towards me and he stated, ‘Touch me.’”
“I took two steps towards him asking him, ‘What did you say?’ He reached out with his right hand and touched my genitals,” Franklin said in the report.
Franklin then informed Cuevas, who claimed he was unemployed and living in Las Vegas, that he was under arrest for sexual battery and lewd acts.
Cuevas was convicted in 2008 of two misdemeanor counts of lewd conduct in a public place, ordered to take an AIDS awareness course and placed on three years probation. The church also stripped the fallen priest of his “faculties” (permission to perform church duties).
“My client (Franklin) was ordered to do patrol duty there,” Murphy said. “While he was minding his own business, he was grabbed by a priest.”
Following Cuevas’ conviction, Murphy sent a letter to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey stating his client’s plans to seek monetary damages for injuries incurred during the arrest.
“A demand was made upon the diocese and refused,” said attorney for the Diocese of Monterey, Paul Gaspari of the San Francisco-based Tobin and Tobin law firm. “I think it was a claim that had no foundation in law or fact.”
Murphy said he wrote the diocese a letter at the time because he assumed Cuevas was still a priest. Later, he was informed that Cuevas was no longer performing priestly duties. He contends that, due to past transgressions, attorneys for the church should not be discussing his client’s case.
“The attorney for the diocese is a rude and tasteless individual,” Murphy said. “With the past cover-ups of indecent conduct, he should mind his own business.”
Both James McKiernan, attorney for Cuevas, as well as Gaspri contend that the case has no merit and, because of the Fireman’s Rule, Franklin has no legal standing to seek damages.
California’s Fireman’s Rule bars lawsuits by police officers and firefighters for collecting on damages that occur in the course of their duties, even when there is negligence by another party.
Two of the precedent-setting cases that form the basis for the Fireman’s Rule involving law enforcement cases occurred in San Luis Obispo County.
In 1982, San Luis Obispo police officer and ex-county supervisor, Jerry Lenthall, filed an injury claim against an assailant who shot him. The case was dismissed under the Fireman’s Rule.
In 1999, a psychiatric patient shot Atascadero Police Officer William Tilley. Tilley’s attorney, Eric Parkinson, then filed suit against the man’s psychiatrist, claiming negligent care. Again, the case was dismissed because of the Fireman’s Rule.
“In a nutshell, firemen get burned, dog catchers get bitten, police get shot and vice cops get groped,” McKiernan says in court documents. “A person, like the defendant, specifically hired to encounter and combat particular dangers is owed no independent tort duty by the party who created the dangers.”
Murphy’s rebuttal is that in some cases of intentional criminal activity the rule has been overridden.
“Just because you are on duty, someone has a right to grab your scrotum and penis?” Murphy asked. “How much has the diocese spent paying out claims of sexual abuse by priests and they dump Cuevas?”
In the past, Franklin has filed numerous workers’ compensation claims for incidents such as slipping down an embankment and multiple exposures to blood and toxic mold, according to court documents. However, he has not filed a workers’ compensation claim or received medical assistance regarding the Pirates Cove incident.
“This is the type of lawsuit that gives the judicial system and lawyers a bad name” McKiernan said. “This is a case when the ranting, raving, threatening and blustering is over, the Fireman’s Rule will kick it out of court.”
Another bone of contention centers around why Franklin has continued to serve as an armed sheriff’s deputy when he states in his civil claim that he suffers from daily feelings of anger and rage.
“We have programs available to our staff suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after highly special incidents,” said Rob Bryn, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, who said because of personnel privacy issues he was not permitted to say if Franklin informed the sheriff’s department of his alleged emotional injuries.
“If someone is allegedly suffering some type of emotional distress, tell someone and we would assist them.”