Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP
Treating California’s Injured With Dignity And Respect

Part 1: Sins, Secrets And Denial

On Behalf of | Jan 10, 2023 | Firm News

Four-Part Series: A TAINTED LEGACY

First in a four-part series:
Diocese underreported scope of abuse allegations

By Rob Dennis, Jeremy Herb, Matthew Artz and Chris De Benedetti

On a March night two years ago, Bishop Allen Vigneron arrived at St. Raymond’s Dublin to do what he had done so many times in previous months: apologize.

“The record of clerical sexual abuse of children and young people is a heavy burden — a burden for all Catholics in the United States, a burden for the church in Oakland, and surely a great burden for all who have been directly involved in that history,” he told the congregation.

What was left unsaid, however, was that the record of abuse in the Diocese of Oakland has never been fully disclosed.

Since January 2004, Vigneron had been making the rounds of 20 Diocese of Oakland parishes to apologize for 12 priests accused of abuse.

In fact, however, at least 64 Roman Catholic clergy members accused of molesting children have served since 1950 in nearly three-quarters of the parishes in the diocese — more than five times more men than Vigneron named in his “apology services,” a MediaNews analysis of court and church records has found.

More than a third of those accused priests and members of religious orders have not been

named outside of court records or linked to the diocese until now.

In the most extensive examination to date of clergy child sex abuse in the diocese — which includes Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and was part of the Archdiocese of San Francisco until 1962 — MediaNews reporters examined tens of thousands of pages of court and church records, police reports and other documents, and they interviewed victims, experts and diocese officials.

Among The findings:

*Clergy members were accused of molesting children in at least 26 parishes and six high schools in the East Bay.

*At least two accused diocesan priests and 19 members of religious orders still serve at church facilities, most of them in the Bay Area, although most no longer work with children.

*Some of the most powerful priests in the diocese — including a former chancellor and vicar general, a former school superintendent, and two former deans responsible for supervising southern Alameda County — were accused of abuse. One of the deans investigated child molestation allegations against the other.

*Accused clergy members served in at least 61 of the 86 parishes and all seven of the high schools in the diocese operated by male clergy. The remaining two, Holy Names in Oakland and Carondelet in Concord, are run by sisters.

*Police investigated accusations against at least five diocesan priests from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s after parents or neighbors reported abuse. None of the priests served prison time. One retired. One was sentenced to three months of probation and laicized, or removed from the priesthood, at his own request. He later returned to serve in another parish as a youth ministry coordinator. Charges were not filed against the remaining three, who were sent to therapy and then continued to serve as priests in the diocese for decades.

*Many accused clergy members were ordered to get treatment and then shuffled to multiple parishes for decades, not reported to law enforcement or removed from ministry — mirroring the practices in the scandal-plagued Archdiocese of Boston and other diocese around the country.

Diocese officials say their procedures today are vastly improved, and that they are committed to cooperating with civil authorities and preventing abuse. Priests who have been credibly accused now are immediately placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation.

The diocese was audited by the Gavin Group of Boston in November and found to be in full compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, standards that were issued by bishops in 2002. Diocese officials say there have been no reports of abuse by priests stemming from incidents in the past six years.

“We work daily and remain committed to keeping our parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions safe environments for children and all people,” the diocese’s chancellor Sister Glenn Anne McPhee said in a statement.

What diocese officials have not done, however, is release complete information about accused priests and the long history of abuse.

Of the 64 accused clergy members identified by MediaNews, 36 were accused of abuse in the diocese, and the remainder were accused in other dioceses but also served in the East Bay.

These numbers do not include accused lay teachers, coaches or deacons, nor do they include priests who were involved in relationships with adults.

MediaNews reporters identified 17 diocesan priests accused of abuse in the diocese, and an additional seven who served in the East Bay and were accused in other dioceses. In 2004, the diocese reported that 24 of its priests had been “credibly accused” of abuse, but it did not name them. In a subsequent series of apology services, Vigneron, the bishop, named only 12.

“My guess (is) all the names are public knowledge,” said the Rev. Mark Wiesner, spokesman for the diocese. “If anything went to court, those are public already. We’re not hiding a thing.”

In addition to the 24 diocesan priests, reporters identified 19 members of the Salesian, Franciscan, Dominican, Christian Brothers, Jesuit, Holy Cross, Redemptorist, Society of the Precious Blood and Marianist religious orders who were accused of abuse in the diocese, and an additional 21 who served here and were accused in other dioceses.

The 2004 report noted that 17 religious order priests and brothers had been accused of abuse, but it also said the religious communities were responsible for investigating those allegations and did not name them. Vigneron did not name religious order clergy members in his apology services, even though 33 worked in various parishes or high schools in the Diocese of Oakland.

“The religious orders are responsible for their own people,” Wiesner said. “In terms of how religious order priests were handled, those questions need to go to the heads of the orders.”

Despite intensive media coverage and dozens of lawsuits, the vast scope of abuse in the diocese has remained buried in voluminous court records, and in personnel files that church lawyers have fought to keep secret.

Even now, six years after the priest sex abuse scandal exploded into the public consciousness, and 2 ½ years after the diocese reached a global legal settlement with the victims, their story has never been fully told.

After Boston

On March 26, 2002, 37-year-old Mark Bogdanowiz met with the Rev. Robert Frietas at a Fremont coffeehouse. For two hours, they delved into the terrible secret history that bound them.

Bogdanowicz’s faith and innocence were taken away one Saturday night in 1980 when Freitas pinned the 15-year-old against the locked door in the rectory at Fremont’s Santa Paula church and molested him.

During their meeting, Freitas acknowledged molesting Bogdanowicz and others, unaware that his victim was wearing a wire to record his former priest’s confession.

Two weeks later, police arrested Frietas.

The following month, Stephen Kiesle, another former East Bay priest, was arrested and charged with molesting three girls at Santa Paula in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Both men and other Bay Area priests facing decades-old molestation charges would be freed in 2003 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases.

Still, the arrests and a series of subsequent lawsuits shocked the region. The sprawling nationwide priest sex abuse scandal that had begun in January 2002 in Boston had arrived in the Diocese of Oakland.

Longtime residents knew it was not the first time that such allegations had been made against priests in the diocese.

In 1978, Kiesle had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor lewd conduct charge for tying up and molesting two boys, ages 11 and 12, at Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City. Four years later, Monsignor Vincent Breen was ousted from his position as pastor of Holy Spirit in Fremont after a police investigation revealed that he had molested at least seven girls ages 7 to 14.

Although those cases had been widely publicized, they were seen as aberrations. Parishioners could not have known just how widespread the abuse was — or for how long it had been going on.

‘Too dangerous’

The earliest known case of priest abuse in the East Bay is reported to have occurred a decade before the diocese was even formed.

In 1952, the year Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School opened, the Rev. James Prindeville began molesting a 16-year-old girl at the school, according to a 2003 lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which ran parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties until the Diocese of Oakland was established in 1962.

Prindeville, who denied the accusation, died in 2004. He had left the priesthood decades previously, married and was living in San Jose. He was not named in Vigneron’s apology services.

His case was not an isolated one.

Also in 1952, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious institute that treats problem priests, wrote that he already had treated a handful of clergy members who had abused minors, according to the 2006 book “Sex, Priests and Secret Codes,” written by the Rev. Thomas Doyle, A.W.R. Sipe and Patrick Wall.

In a 1957 letter to the archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., where the Paraclete facility was located, Fitzgerald wrote that he thought it was unwise to “offer hospitality to men who have seduced or attempted to seduce little boys or girls.”

“If I were a bishop I would tremble when I failed to report them to Rome for involuntary laicization,” he added, referring to the process in which priests are removed from public service. “Experience had taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and the neighborhood for us to be justified in receiving them here.”

Nonetheless, by 1966, the Paraclete facility was specializing in the treatment of priests who had molested children, according to the book.

For the next three decades, in Oakland and in other diocese and archdioceses nationwide, bishops continued to send accused priests for treatment at Paraclete and other facilities and then return them to ministry.

Other warnings also went unheeded.

In 1985, Doyle, along with attorney F. Ray Mouton and psychiatrist the Rev. Michael Peterson, delivered a report to bishops nationwide on the priest abuse issue, which had begun to be widely publicized after the conviction of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La.

Gauthe was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to 39 counts of molesting young boys.

The 92-page report examined the legal, medical, insurance and pastoral concerns raised by the issue and recommended steps to deal with it, including the establishment of a “crisis control team” to assist bishops in handling accused clergy.

The recommendations were ignored, according to the authors.

The Victims

The number of victims likely never will be fully tallied.

In its 2004 report, the diocese said that there were at least 72. Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP, say they know of more than 130. However, that figure includes only those who have sued or reported the abuse to SNAP; many more likely are continuing to shoulder their burden in silence.

“What they say is for every victim who comes forward, 20 do not,” said SNAP member Dan McNevin, who was molested as an altar boy by the Rev. James Clark at Corpus Christi parish in Fremont’s Niles neighborhood.

Experts say that child sex abuse is vastly underreported because of victims’ feelings of shame, guilt and powerlessness that often continue into adulthood. Those feelings are compounded when the abuser is in authority figure, such as a priest.

“Victims of priests are a different group of victims,” said attorney Rick Simons, who represented many of those victims in their lawsuits against the diocese.

“With other problems, you can go to your family priest for support. But (victims of priest abuse) can’t go to church for support; they can’t go to their parents. Often they don’t believe you. You’re a kid; you’re intimidated. You can’t tell on God’s representative on Earth. Often, victims find themselves criticized or not believed.”

Joey Piscitelli, director of SNAP’s Northern California office, agreed.

“The majority of sexual abuse victims abused by priests never come forward,” said Piscitellli, whom a jury awarded $600,000 in 2006 after he was molested years earlier at age 14 at Salesian High School in Richmond by the Rev. Stephen Whelan. Whelan was not named in the apology services. The case is being appealed.

“The Catholic Church is very fortunate, in a financial sense, because if all the victims made claims, they’d be bankrupt,” Piscitelli said.

Those victims who have come forward ranged in age from 2 to 17. At least 42 of them were girls. In at least nine cases, two or more siblings were molested by the same priest.

Among them were brothers Bob and Tom Thatcher, who were awarded more than $1.9 million by a civil jury for their molestation by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli at St. Ignatius in Antioch in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

During the civil trial, the Thatchers — who were 9 and 10 when the abuse occurred — described their feelings of confusion, guilt and helplessness, their subsequent addiction to alcohol and drugs, and the lingering effects of their childhood trauma.

“When I hit puberty and when I realized what sex was, I realized …. right then and right there that my first sexual experience was with a 300 pound priest,” Bob Thatcher testified.

“I was 13; I know I started drinking at that time. It seemed awfully odd behavior for a 13-year-old, but that’s when I started drinking.”

Many other victims also have taken refuge in alcohol or drugs.

“Right now, (some) people aren’t coming forward because they’re hurt and wounded, and they have fears to worry about,” Piscitelli said.

“In the meantime, they become drug addicts, drink and become depressed.”

Bob and Tom Thatcher ultimately turned their lives around, married and had children of their own. Like other victims, however, they still bear the psychological scars.

Melinda, 46, of San Francisco was one of the victims who reported Kiesle to police for abuse two decades prior at Santa Paula in Fremont. She asked that her last name not be used.

“I still struggle every single day of my life,” she said.

“I’m stable, OK, looking at the big picture, but emotionally I struggle every day. That is a direct result of the abuse and all that followed it.”

The Priests

For decades, accused priests had little to fear from the powers that be. In fact, in a handful of cases, they were the powers that be.

Monsignor Pearse Donovan served as the diocese’s superintendent of schools from 1963 to 1972. He was a friend of Bishop Emeritus John Cummins, who first met him as a high school seminarian in 1943 and later served with him at Bishop O’ Dowd High School in Oakland and at Corpus Christi parish in Piedmont.

In 1978, Donovan, then serving at St. Clement in Hayward, was sent to two treatment centers for alcoholism, Cummins testified in a deposition. That same year, Donovan began molesting a boy at St. Clement and later “passed him on” to an abusive Holy Cross brother, Lawrence O’Brien, at Hayward’s Moreau High School, according to allegations in a 2003 lawsuit.

Donovan died in 1986. He was not named in the apology services.

The Rev. George Crespin, who served in two of the diocese’s top administrative positions —— chancellor and vicar general —— from 1979 to 1994, was accused of molesting a boy in the mid-1970s while he was pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City.

Diocese officials found there was “insufficient evidence” to support the allegation against Crespin, but the agreed to pay his accuser $600,000 as part of the $56.4 million global settlement with abuse victims in August 2005. In entering the global settlement, the diocese did not admit liability. Crespin now is retired and living at St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley. He was not named in the apology services.

In southern Alameda County, two serial molesters — Monsignor Vincent Breen of Holy Spirit in Fremont and Monsignor George Frances of St. Bede in Hayward — held sway from 1965 to 1977 as deans responsible for supervising area priests.

In response to a complaint about Breen in the 1970s, Franc is was called in to investigate. No action was taken. Breen was forced to retire in 1982 after a police investigation.

Vigneron has apologized for the abuse committed by Breen and Francis, both of whom are dead. SNAP says that Breen molested at least 15 girls, and Francis abused nine.

Aside from Breen and Francis, at least seven other diocesan priests have been accused of molesting four or more children, according SNAP and court records: the Rev. James Clark (four), the Rev. Arthur Ribeiro (four), Freitas (five), the Rev. Gary Tollner (six), Ponciroli (eight), the Rev. Donald Broderson (11); and Keisle (15). At least seven religious order priests or brothers also were accused of being multiple offenders.

The number of accused priests serving in the diocese grew steadily in the 1960s and 1970s, peaking in 1978 with 24. All three priests who served at Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City that year — Crespin, Kiesle and the Rev. Antonio Camacho later would be accused of abuse.

This was not an anomaly. Given the relatively small community of diocesan priests, most of whom were transferred routinely every few years, at least 19 accused priests worked or lived with one another or with Cummins at various times, serving together at parishes, schools or on one of the numerous diocesan boards and committees.

‘Out of the way’

Abuse occurred in parishes throughout the diocese, but the smaller towns of the time were especially hard hit.

Clergy members were accused of molesting children in both Antioch parishes, as in the sole parishes in Byron, Dublin, Martinez, Newark, Piedmont, Pinole and San Lorenzo, according to court records. Abuse was reported to have occurred at three of the four parishes in Hayward, three of the five parishes in Fremont, two of the four in Concord, one of the two in Castro Valley and one of the two in Union City.

Meanwhile, in Oakland the seat of the diocese, abuse was reported at only two of the 19 parishes — or 11 percent.

“It makes sense there are more (in smaller parishes),” McNevin said. “When guys get accused, they don’t get promoted to high parishes — they get kicked out to places in the diocese where they will be out of the way.”

Accused clergy members served nearly everywhere, however.

While abuse was reported in 18 of the 37 cities with parishes, accused clergy members served in 30 of them. They served in nearly three-quarters of the parishes in Oakland — the same percentage as the diocese as a whole.

Still, the parishes where the most accused clergy members served over the years were generally in small towns.

Five served at Holy Spirit in Fremont, and four served at St. Alphonsus Liguori in San Leandro, Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City, Most Holy Rosary in Antioch, Corpus Christi in Piedmont, St. Catherine of Sienna in Martinez and St. Columba in Oakland.

By far the greatest number of accused clergy members, though, served at Salesian High School in Richmond, with nine. Five served at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, three at De La Salle in Concord and three at Moreau in Hayward.

In all, accused priests and members of religious orders served in 61 of the 86 parishes, or 71 percent.

The vast scope of the crisis is not unique to the Diocese of Oakland, however.

In 2005, the Los Angeles Times found that accused clergy members served in about three-quarters of the 288 parishes in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from 1950 to 2003. The Arizona Republic in 2003 reported that accused priests served in nearly half of the 88 parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix from 1970 to 2002.

‘Exercises In Leadership’

The first lawsuits were filed against the diocese in the early and mid-1990s. A decade later, Freitas, Kiesle, Ponciroli and other priests were arrested in the wake of the Boston scandal in 2002. The next year, victims filed a flurry of lawsuits after the Legislature lifted the statutes of limitations for such civil cases for a year.

In response to the burgeoning crisis, Vigneron, the new Bishop of Oakland, held the apology services at 20 parishes throughout the diocese from 2004 to 2006, naming 12 priests.

While the services feel far short of identifying all accused priests or the full scope of the abuse, they drew praise from many victims and their advocates, who saw it as a positive step.

Vigneron “has been supportive of victims,” Simons, the attorney who has represented many victims, said.

“He has sincerely expressed heartfelt apologies in apology ceremonies. Those were all exercises in leadership by the new bishop.”

However, not all victims were satisfied. But for many, Vigneron’s actions stood in stark contrast to the wall of secrecy they had faced for decades.

During a 2005 deposition, a plaintiffs attorney asked former bishop Cummins if he had ever publicly identified any accused priests before his retirement.

“I don’t think that’s the approach we took,” he responded. “What we did do is invite those who were victims, and especially in those parishes, to please come forward if they felt that was what they wished. I don’t think we went in the other direction of announcing the whole docket on (them), no.”

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson asked: “Have you ever, to this day, ever taken any initiative to make the private facts that a priest was an offender, and that you knew it, known to the public?”

“No,” Cummins responded.