Catholic Church’s Santa Rosa Diocese to name priests accused of sex abuse
Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa has chosen this weekend to release the names of Catholic priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse during the local diocese's 57-year history in hopes of turning a corner on a scourge that has wounded the faithful, drained church coffers and deeply injured survivors whose innocence was exploited by men they trusted.
But how far the move will go in making up for sins of the past remains in question amid a resurgent global crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, whose leadership is often viewed as having turned a blind eye to clergy abuse and even enabling it by quietly reassigning many accused priests rather than discharging them.
Recent attempts by U.S. bishops at transparency have been greeted with some skepticism among critics and survivors whose ingrained distrust may not easily be tempered, particularly given explosive revelations contained in a Pennsylvania grand jury report last year that renewed the drumbeat for greater scrutiny of church leadership.
That report cited a systemic failure to protect children by moving offending priests around, keeping complaints from the public and leaving police out of the equation.
Advocates and some survivors say the church's tendency is to protect its own, even in trying to reckon with the scandal through disclosures about accused priests and misconduct.
“It feels very defensive to me, for which I don't blame them,” said one local man, a survivor of Austin Peter Keegan, a notorious North Bay priest who served in both San Francisco and Santa Rosa and is believed to have raped or assaulted as many as 80 children over three decades. His victims included boys he molested at least 50 times in Santa Rosa between 1979 and 1982, when he was fired.
“But if you really want to make a difference and have people believe back in the brand, for lack of a better word,” the man said, “you have to open up the doors, open up the vaults, open up the desks and be completely transparent.”
Vasa inherited a painful legacy eight years ago, when he took the helm of a diocese in which the scandal of abuse erupted early on and ultimately included numerous high-profile offenders with multiple victims. A one-time bishop, the late-G. Patrick Ziemann, was accused of sexual abuse by three Southern California men before a 2-year relationship with another priest led to his downfall. The diocese has paid out more than $29 million in legal settlements to childhood victims of at least 10 priests since the 1990s. About $12 million was covered by insurance.
Vasa said his goal in making the names of accused priests public was to be as throughly transparent and accountable as possible, erring “in favor of disclosure.”
But he acknowledged the reception would be mixed and likely challenging - from parishioners unhappy about finding the name of a beloved priest included in the list, to those who find the whole exercise too little too late.
“I'm mostly hopeful that it can begin to clear some of the air,” Vasa, 67, said Tuesday. “I'm sure there are people that are hurt and angry and bitter and will never re-establish any element of trust in the church. And I understand that, and so I'm just trying to do the best I can.”
The move on the part of numerous Catholic dioceses, including several in California, to disclose the names of accused priests is an attempt to counteract years of silence in the face of clergy abuse allegations that allowed some abusive priests to move between parishes without intervention. But it springs more directly from the Pennsylvania grand jury report and subsequent commitments by New York and other state attorneys general to seek out records from the church and investigate alleged abuses.
Patrick Wall, a former Catholic priest and monk who now works out of Orange County as an advocate for a law firm specializing in clergy abuse cases, said church authorities were forced to act once the Pennsylvania grand jury revealed its findings.
The searing report “opened up a fissure in the control system that the bishops had, and all of a sudden there were priests from all over that they thought they had the stories under control that got loose,” Wall said Tuesday. “And in that process, several bishops came under extreme heat.”
California bishops were put on notice in October when a Southern California abuse survivor filed suit against each Catholic diocese in the state and the Archdiocese of Chicago, hoping to force them “to come clean” and disclose the names of abusive priests.
Minnesota-based Jeff Anderson & Associates, which represents the Southern California survivor, is also Wall's employer and has since published its own lists of abusive priests for several dioceses, all assembled from open-source materials such as news accounts, lawsuits and criminal cases.