An advocacy and support group for people sexually abused by Catholic priests is challenging a veteran priest's lead role in assessing abuse allegations against clergy in the Santa Rosa Diocese.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, wants Monsignor John Brenkle -- who was once accused and cleared of abusing a middle-school-age boy -- to be removed as chairman of the diocese's Lay Review Board.
"The fact that Monsignor Brenkle has had an accusation against him, it is conflict of interest, certainly for him to be chair and, personally, I think even to be a member" of the board, said Mary Pitcher, a SNAP member.
Pitcher, of Long Beach, was among SNAP members to call attention to the issue by protesting Sept. 8 in Napa at a church meeting on child safety.
Diocese officials said last week that Brenkle, a priest for 50 years who is pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church, is among the diocese's most trusted priests.
"He's a man of integrity, and it seems to me that having been falsely accused, he knows how difficult these decisions are and how careful we must be in finding the facts," said Bishop Daniel Walsh.
To remove Brenkle, 76, would open the door to destroying by accusation alone a church whose leadership is largely pastoral, said Deirdre Frontczak, diocese spokeswoman.
"If you said that anyone who ever had been accused should never serve in a position of responsibility or leadership in the church, that would be a tremendous miscarriage of justice," she said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reeling from the sex abuse scandal, in 2002 required each diocese in the country to form lay review boards to assess sexual abuse charges against priests. A majority of the board must be lay people who aren't church employees but also must include a "respected" member of the clergy.
As a priest once accused of abusing someone, Brenkle is the wrong priest for that role, said Erin Brady, a SNAP member who took part in the Napa protests last week.
"He can't be impartial," said Brady, who was a plaintiff in lawsuits filed in 2003 against the Los Angeles Archdiocese by alleged victims of abuse by priests.
Brenkle's case "was investigated and he was fully exonerated," Frontczak said. To remove him for the reasons SNAP has offered, she said, would start to pull the rug out from under the church.
"If I was his parishioner, I would say, 'If he shouldn't lead a review board, well then, perhaps he shouldn't have a parish,'" Frontczak said.
"I think you very quickly undermine the ability of any priest to serve -- it would say, 'If I want to destroy the church leadership, all I have to do is go down the line and accuse this priest or that priest,'" she said.
Brenkle on Wednesday said, "I've been the chair of the board for the past eight years, and this question has never come up before."
The accusations against him arose in 2005, he said. They involved a St. Helena seventh-grader whose father -- about 10 years after the alleged incident -- said that Brenkle had abused his son and had given him money as an enticement.
Brenkle said the boy had assisted at a church banquet and that the money was a stipend given every youth who helped at such events. The boy's father also failed to appear at a diocese hearing to assess the allegation, Brenkle said.
He said he has a letter from the boy in question stating that there was nothing to the charges, and he suggested that the allegations were made because he had questioned the boy about whether he was being abused by his parents.
The issue hadn't reached the attention of the U.S. Catholic church's national review board, which was also created in 2002 by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But members of the board who were asked about it offered differing views.
The board chairman, Michael Merz, a U.S. magistrate judge in Dayton, Ohio, said much would depend on how SNAP views the investigation that absolved Brenkle.
"It seems to me, if it is accepted by SNAP as well as everybody else that in fact the accusation was false, then that (the prior allegations) wouldn't have any impact on whether the priest should serve or serve as a chair," he said.
The board is made up entirely of lay people and is charged with studying sexual abuse by clergy and advising the bishops on preventing it.
Another member, Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor, was inclined to follow SNAP's position. The strength of the lay review boards is in their distance from the clergy, he said.
"The whole idea is for these things to be lay driven, that to me is the larger issue," said Plante, author of several books about the church and sexual abuse by priests, and a member of similar review boards in San Jose and in the Jesuit order.