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Abuse victims support group says Monsignor Brenkle should be removed as head of diocese's Lay Review Board

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.

"At the end of the day, all of these review boards, national as well as locally, they're all advisory, and so it's hard to advise someone who's your boss," Plante said. "That's one of the beauties of having a lay committee, because they can't do anything to us."

A claim by SNAP that Santa Rosa's is the only one of nearly 200 dioceses in the country where a priest heads the lay review board couldn't be confirmed last week.

"It is uncommon," said Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.

"Usually they are headed by lay people," she said.

Walsh said Brenkle's record, especially in areas of controversy, is extensive.

In 1999, with the Santa Rosa Diocese staggering under the weight of sexual abuse controversies and financial mismanagement, Brenkle was appointed its chief finance officer by then San Francisco Archbishop William Levada. Brenkle also chaired the precursor to the lay review board, the sensitive issues committee, and through the 1990s he played a key role in negotiating more than $4 million in settlements between the diocese and people who had charged its priests with sexual misconduct.

"I watched him chair that (the sensitive issues committee) and he chaired it with great sensitivity and his ability to help the victims, to reach out in a pastoral way to them was very impressive," Walsh said.

"I thought he would be a very strong man to lead our board and I'm still convinced he is the best man to do that," he said.

Brady couldn't see things more differently, saying the experience would inevitably color Brenkle's view of allegations.

"Whether it's true or not, whether it actually happened or not, whether he was disciplined or not, he should not be on that board if he is making decisions about sexual misconduct," she said.

In 2007, the lawsuit Brady was a part of ended when the Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to a $660 million settlement, with each plaintiff receiving an average of $1.3 million depending on the severity of their case. Brady, a Los Angeles resident, said she received double the average, a measure, she said, of her claim's validity.

She had charged Monsignor Joseph Alzugaray, now pastor of Napa's St. Appolinaris Church, with abusing her in the late 1960s for about three years. She brought her case to the Los Angeles Diocese in 1993, and later to the attention of the Santa Rosa church.

Santa Rosa Diocese officials have said that Alzugaray was absolved of wrongdoing in 1995 and again in 2005; Brady said that she was never interviewed by diocese officials during those periods.

The case was reopened this February with Bishop Walsh's approval, according to both Brenkle and Julie Sporacio, director of child and youth protection at the Santa Rosa Diocese.

Alzugaray, who has denied the allegations, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment last week.

In 2004, a Los Angeles court rejected lawsuits he filed against SNAP and a lawyer representing alleged victims claiming they had defamed him.

The case against Alzugaray "has been reopened again and it's because our own board asked for it to be, not SNAP," Brenkle said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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