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Part 2: Leadership Disregard

On Behalf of | Jan 10, 2023 | Firm News

Four-Part Series: A TAINTED LEGACY

Second in a four-part series:
At least 10 priests served despite abuse complaints

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

For most of its 46-year history, the Diocese of Oakland was led by two men. One did not want even his closest advisers to know that his priests had molested children. The other, his subordinates say, was happier not knowing.

Bishops Floyd Begin, who served until his death in 1977, and John Cummins, who took over for Begin and served until 2003, had vastly different leadership styles, but the result was identical: Priests accused of child molestation were allowed to serve in parishes after they were reported to diocese officials. Some of them continued to abuse again and again.

In a series of depositions obtained by MediaNews reporters, former diocese leaders described a system that allowed at least 10 accused priests to remain in ministry for years — sometimes decades — after sexual misconduct was reported.

Molestation complaints were kept secret from other clergy and the community. Accused priests were sent away for treatment and then returned to the diocese to serve in other parishes.

Diocese officials did not contact police about the allegations until such reporting became required by the law in 1997.

“It wasn’t our practice” to report accused priests to law enforcement, the Rev. George Crespin, a former chancellor who was in charge of clergy personnel from 1979 to 1987, testified in a 2005 deposition. “That wasn’t what we did.”

Even on the handful of occasions when parents and neighbors reported abuse to police in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the cases were resolved without the priests serving a day in prison.

“The people in our office had very good associations with district attorney’s offices by and large,” Cummins testified in a 2005 deposition. “It was kind of a mutual collaboration, which I think was a very healthy relationship.”

Healthy for whom? “plaintiffs” attorney Jeffrey Anderson asked in the deposition.

“For the association of the diocese and the district attorneys or the police, and then I think for the managing of the situation,” Cummins replied.

Most of the time, however, complaints were made only to diocese officials — and went nowhere.

“In Little League, if there is a molestation, the coaches are out of there,” said attorney Rick Simons, who represented numerous victims of priest sexual abuse in Northern California. “But a coach isn’t God’s representative on earth like a priest. People take that seriously. With the church, when (abuse) was reported, (the victims) were just ignored.”

“Too Free With Boys”

On May 22, 1975, two parents came to Bishop Begin with shocking news.

Their sons had been molested by the Rev. Robert Ponciroli, a parish priest at St. Cornelius in Richmond, they said. One boy was in seventh grade, the other in fifth grade.

The seventh-grader “reported to his parents that (Ponciroli) pulled out his shirt, stuck his hand inside his pants,” Begin wrote in a confidential, self-addressed memo after the meeting. His brother “reports to his parents that (Ponciroli) took my pants down, touched my privates.”

It was not the first warning about Ponciroli. The previous month, a group of boys had delivered a petition to the pastor of St. Cornelius, the Rev. Gabriel Meyer, protesting Ponciroli’s habit of “tickling them and rubbing them.” The Rev. Brian Joyce, the chancellor then, also had received calls indicating that Ponciroli was “too free with boys, especially altar boys,” according to Begin’s memo.

In response, the bishop sent Ponciroli to a San Francisco psychiatrist and transferred him, first to St. Jarlath parish in Oakland, then to Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley. The pattern would continue for most of the next quarter century, as Ponciroli was moved to five more parishes, allegedly abusing several more children along the way.

Among those children were Bob and Tom Thatcher, devout Catholic brothers who served as altar boys at St. Ignatius in Antioch, where Ponciroli was pastor in the early 1980s.

“I didn’t know what it meant, but it was something ….. really wrong,” Bob Thatcher said about the abuse in testimony during a 2005 civil trial. “It was like a shock wave in me, and I kept hoping it would be over.”

A jury awarded the Thatchers more than $1.9 million.

The parishioners at St. Ignatius and other parishes were never told about Ponciroli’s past. The abuse at St. Cornelius was never reported to law enforcement. Begin never even told Joyce or other diocese leaders.

“He was an old-school bishop,” Joyce said of Begin in a deposition.

“He was in charge and did not see sharing with others (as) a mandate.

‘Overriding Sickness’

Born in Cleveland in 1902, Begin was ordained in 1927, rising to the position of auxiliary bishop in his hometown 20 years later. In January 1962, he was appointed bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Oakland.

When it came to personnel issues, Begin “mostly reserved a lot of decisions to himself,” testified Crespin, who served on the personnel board under Begin.

“He was the one who dealt more directly with the priests in his time. We made recommendations as a board, but then he pretty much did what he wanted later.”

Begin never told the personnel board about the accusation against Ponciroli. Nor did he share with the board a letter he had received two years previously, in 1973, from a parishioner at St. Joachim in Hayward who accused the Rev. Donald Broderson of inappropriate conduct with her son.

“I beg of you to please give this man professional help, and remove him from the influence of our boys,” the woman wrote. “I don’t even want my son to serve Mass, for fear of Father Don being the priest he will be with.”

A few weeks later, Broderson was transferred to Most Precious Blood — now St. Frances of Assisi — in Concord. In 1975, Begin discovered that Broderson had molested a girl there, and the priest was sent to therapy and transferred again.

Broderson remained in the diocese for another 18 years, serving in four other parishes, until he was forced into retirement in 1993. In his deposition, Broderson acknowledged molesting children on a “reasonably constant” basis from early to mid-1970s. In at least four cases, he abused multiple boys from the same family.

“I think it was just a question of overriding sickness,” he said when asked what his motivation was. “I mean, a sickness of some sort and extreme immaturity seems to make the best sense to me, and extreme depression.”

After his retirement, Broderson moved into his parents’ home in Richmond. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist, although he said he does not practice. As with other retired abusers, he continues to receive financial assistance from the diocese.

The diocese has the responsibility to provide for the care and support of all its priests,” chancellor Sister Glenn Anne McPhee said in a statement. “These responsibilities are being met.”

‘I’ll Kill You’

Not all accused priests were transferred from parish to parish, however.

Monsignor Vincent Breen had served as pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Fremont since 1953, and he also had played a number of key administrative roles for the diocese, including stints on the school board from 1966 to 1970 and as a supervisor for other priests in southern

Alameda County from 1965 to 1970.

In 1971, an eighth-grade boy at Holy Spirit wrote a note to Breen that said, “If you touch my sister again, I’ll kill you.” News of the note made its way to Joyce, who sent the diocesan attorney to visit the family.

“The result of the visit was total denial, first by the family, then the youngster saying he had said it as a joke and then the young girl saying it had never happened and that they were lying,” Joyce testified.

Six years later, a nun at Holy Spirit complained to the diocese that Breen had been abusing girls. No action was taken, and the nun was transferred to St. Bede in Hayward at her request.

The following year, in 1978, several girls wrote a letter to the diocese saying they had been molested by Breen.

Longtime St. Bede pastor, Monsignor George Francis, who had served on the school board with Breen, was asked to investigate. Again, no action was taken.

It later emerged that Francis —— who died in 1998 — also was accused of molesting at least nine young girls.

Breen remained at Holy Spirit until he was forced into retirement in 1982 after a police investigation found that he had molested at least seven girls ages 7 to 14. The diocese, police and the Alameda County district attorney’s office reached an agreement that no criminal charges would be filed if Breen retired, left the area and sought counseling.

Breen died in 1986.

Missing Records

It is unknown how many reports of priest child sex abuse Begin received during his 15-year tenure as bishop. Cummins, who served as chancellor from 1962 to 1971, and Joyce both say that Begin mostly kept them in the dark about such matters.

The letter about Broderson is one of the few records of such complaints that surfaced in the priest’s personnel files subpoenaed as part of Northern California’s Clergy III priest sex abuse civil suits, which were settled in 2005.

For example, there was no record in the Rev. James Clark’s file of his 1963 conviction for oral copulation — then a felony — after he was arrested with a 19-year-old man in a Santa Cruz motel room.

Begin was upset “that the crime was committed and then that the arrest would make it a public issue,” Cummins testified. After the arrest, Begin promoted Clark to pastor of Corpus Christi parish in the Niles district of Fremont, where he was accused of molesting three altar boys from the late 1960s to 1980. Clark died in 1989.

The absence of many records about molesting priests is no accident.

When Crespin was asked during a deposition why he had not placed his notes about several accused priests in their personnel files, he replied, “That was the instruction we had from the lawyers.”

In 1987, when the Rev. Frank Houdek took over the diocese’s personnel duties, Crespin attempted to hand over the notes about abusive priests.

“He didn’t want them,” Crespin testified. “He didn’t want to be prejudiced in his attitudes toward priests by having unfavorable information. He wanted to make his own mind up.”

‘The Outside Man’

The late Rev. Gary Tollner was known for his poor preaching ability and failure to tend adequately to the sick at St. Philip Neri parish in Alameda. Gradually, though, more disturbing stories began to emerge, according to court records.

In 1982, Tollner’s sister-in-law reported that he had molested his retarded 22-year-old nephew, who had a mental age of 12. Then-chancellor Crespin wrote a memo to Cummins, describing the abuse and additional reports of “suspicious behavior” involving young boys, alcohol and drugs in the hot tub Tollner had installed on the rectory roof.

“There were some parishioners in the St. Philip Neri parish who were concerned about the young people that he was inviting to the rectory and having drugs — marijuana, I think — and alcohol with them,” Crespin testified.

Crespin, who had attended St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park with Tollner, suggested to Cummins that they needed to take action about the wayward priest. Cummins said he would think about it. Tollner remained pastor at St. Philip Neri for another two years.

“Basically, I think the bishop wasn’t quite sure how to proceed,” Crespin testified.

Cummins, the second son of Irish immigrants, was ordained in 1953 as a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, serving at Mission Dolores Basilica and as campus minister at San Francisco state until he was transferred to Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland in 1957.

When the Diocese of Oakland was formed, Cummins was named its first chancellor, a position he held until he was appointed executive director of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops in Sacramento in 1971. Three years later, he was named auxiliary bishop of Sacramento.

When Begin died in 1977, Cummins was named the second bishop of Oakland, a position he would hold until his retirement in 2003. The two men had much different attitudes about handling abusive priests.

“Bishop Begin kept most of the personnel work to himself, and Bishop Cummins was what we termed the outside man,” Crespin testified, “He was the one (who) maintained relations with religious communities, with the university, with the cities. He was the PR man for the diocese, in a sense.”

Simons, the attorney who represented numerous victims of sex abuse, asked: “Would it be accurate to say that in your estimation, Bishop Cummins just — when it came to clergy personnel issues, he was happier not to have to deal with them?”

Crespin responded: “Yes.”

Cummins declined to be interviewed for this story.

Eventually, in 1985, Tollner was sent away for treatment to Saint Luke Institute in Maryland, but he refused to stay. He ultimately was transferred to work at the Diocese of Oakland’s Propagation of the Faith office, living at St. Theresa parish in Oakland.

When asked if he had been concerned that Tollner was living at a parish where there was a school, Crespin responded, “I think the feeling was that the concern was addressed by the fact that his job would take him away from the parish during the daytime, so he would not be around when school was in session.”

In February 1987, a man reported that Tollner had sexually abused him beginning in 1966 when he was age 10 or 11 at St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Oakland and continuing into adulthood. The abuse also was reported to Oakland police.

Tollner remained at St. Theresa until 1995. He served at the Propagation of the Faith office until his death in 1998.

‘It’s Over’

The accusations against Tollner came in the months after the widely publicized Breen investigation, and four years after another priest sex-abuse case had made headlines.

In June 1978, Crespin was serving as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City when police came looking for his associate pastor, the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, who had been accused of molesting young boys.

Kiesle was on vacation. When he returned, Crespin confronted him with the accusations.

“It’s over,” Kiesle sighed.

He pleaded no contest to lewd conduct — a misdemeanor — for tying up and sexually molesting two boys, 11 and 12 years old, in the rectory at Our Lady of the Rosary. The self-described “Pied Piper of the neighborhood” was sentenced to three years of probation.

Afterward, Kiesle was sent to therapy and then “offered hospitality” by the pastor at St. Columbus in Oakland, Crespin said. Kiesle was removed from the priesthood at his own request in 1981.

Kiesle was not finished with the diocese, however.

Four years after he was defrocked, he began to volunteer as a youth minister at St. Joseph in Pinole, where he had served before his time at Our Lady of the Rosary.

In May 1988, an outraged worker at the diocese’s Office of Youth Ministry wrote a letter asking why Kiesle remained in place after three complaints about having the former priest in such an inappropriate position had been lodged in the previous eight months — most recently to Cummins.

“How are we supposed to have confidence in the system, when nothing is done?” wrote the worker, Maurine Behrend. “A simple phone call to the pastor from the bishop is all it would take: We do not allow convicted child molesters to work with children in this diocese.”

Shortly afterward, Cummins removed Kiesle from his position.

In 2002, Kiesle was arrested and charged with 13 counts of child molestation, 11 of them stemming from his time at Our Lady of the Rosary, and before that at St. Joseph in Pinole and Santa Paula in Fremont. All but two of the charges were dismissed after the U.S Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a California law extending the statute of limitations in such cases.

The remaining charges were resolved two years later, when Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting a young girl at his Truckee vacation home in 1995.

‘Very Embarrassed’

For most of the next decade, there were continued reports of abuse, although they were not made public.

In December 1979, while the diocese still was reeling from the publicity surrounding Kiesle’s arrest and conviction, the parents of two girls filed a police report accusing the Rev. Tarcisio Lanuevo of abusing their daughters at St. John the Baptist in San Lorenzo. One girl was 10 years old. The other was 2 years old.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the girls in 1993, Lanuevo’s pastor indicated that if the parents dropped the criminal charges, Lanuevo would receive counseling and have no further contact with children.

“Lanuevo was not given the promised counseling and was subsequently placed in positions in which he had contact with other children,” the lawsuit stated. “No disciplinary action was taken against him.”

The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.

Lanuevo was transferred to five more parishes after the initial police report was filed; he left the diocese in 1991. He now lives in Medford, Oregon.

In 1984, the Rev Ronald LaGasse was arrested on suspicion of molesting a 17-year-old boy at St. Raymond in Dublin.

LaGasse, who served in the diocese since 1970, was sent to Saint Luke Institute for treatment and removed from the ministry for a year. He returned to the diocese.

He later left to serve as a chaplain in the Army Reserve. In 2005, now going by the name “Abbot Benjamin,” he founded the Nakili ‘O Lani Abbey, a United Ecumenical Catholic Church “monastery-without-walls” in Kailua, Hawaii, which is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. He serves there still. In August, he was promoted to bishop.

La Gasse did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

In 1984, the same year LaGasse was arrested, a counselor reported to the diocese and child protective services that the Rev. Robert Freitas had molested his client. He was sent away for six months’ in-house therapy at the House of Affirmation in Massachusetts, then returned to ministry.

He served in the diocese until his arrest in April 2002 for molesting a 15-year-old boy more than two decades previously at Santa Paula in Fremont. Freitas pleaded guilty, but the case was thrown out after the Supreme Court’s statute of limitations ruling.

Testifying in the 2005 Thatcher case, Freitas said that the pastor of All Saints in Hayward had first learned in 1977 that Freitas had molested a boy while on a cross-country trip. He acknowledged later molesting at least two boys while at Santa Paula but said he committed no abuse after he was sent to therapy. He no longer serves in a parish and now lives in Hayward. He declined to comment for this story.

In 1986, newly ordained priest the Rev. Jeffrey Acebo came to Cummins and confessed that he had molested a 16-year-old girl.

“He was very embarrassed, and he had gotten involved with this young woman, and he wanted to get up and announce it to the world,” Cummins testified. “And I told him, You are going to get treatment. That’s No. 1.”

Acebo was sent to Connecticut for treatment, and then returned to ministry in the diocese, where he served for another 15 years in four other parishes. He now lives in Pinole.


As for Ponciroli, he finally was pulled from ministry in 1995, after a lawsuit was filed against the diocese accusing him of abuse committed 20 years earlier.

He was placed on administrative leave with no parishioner contact at St. Cyril’s in Oakland until his retirement in 1998.

In addition to retirement benefits, the diocese spent $11,325 to pay off the mortgage on Ponciroli’s new home in Florida and gave him $3,627 to pay for moving expenses, $680 for uninsured medical expenses and $1,000 for auto insurance, according to court records.

The diocese also paid for aftercare programs for Ponciroli’s “psychosexual, physical, interpersonal and spiritual health.” He was allowed to continue to work in ministry in Florida, with some limitations.

In November 1999, Cummins wrote to his former priest, offering him “very good wishes” for the years ahead. He added that he hoped Ponciroli was receiving adequate financial support, hoped that Florida would be congenial for him and thanked him for his years of service.

I know that your interests went well beyond the ordinary parish responsibilities,” Cummins wrote, referring, he later testified, to Ponciroli’s work with the Knights of Columbus and the Serra Club.

The letter was sent nearly 25 years after Begin was told about the abuse at St. Cornelius, nearly five years since Cummins and other diocese officials had confirmed, beyond a doubt, that Ponciroli had molested multiple children under his care.