Santa Rosa priest was accused of child sex abuse by error, plaintiff’s attorney said

A veteran Sonoma County priest who was named among the perpetrators in a crush of new clergy abuse lawsuits last year has been vindicated by the very man who first accused him.|

A veteran Sonoma County priest who was named among the perpetrators in a crush of new clergy abuse lawsuits last year has been vindicated by the very man who first accused him.

Monsignor James Pulskamp, one-time director of the Hanna Boys Center in the Sonoma Valley, was misidentified by the alleged abuser, the plaintiff’s attorney says.

The accuser has since identified his alleged assailant as disgraced Rev. John Crews, who succeeded Pulskamp in 1984 as director of what was then a residential school for at-risk boys.

Crews resigned in 2013, when he was first accused of child sex abuse by the widow of a man who had been assaulted at a Sebastopol church. He was last known to be in South Carolina.

“I feel really bad about it. He feels really bad about, it” said longtime San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who represents the plaintiff.

When the suit was originally filed early last year, the plaintiff told his legal team it was Pulskamp who had abused him while he was at the Hanna Center.

Then, during recent preparation of a fact sheet to be delivered to the facility’s lawyers, he identified Crews in a photograph as the man who had sexually abused him, Alexander said.

“He just attached the wrong name to the person,” Alexander said. She declined to say more because of attorney-client privilege. “You’re dealing with the memory of a child,” she said.

Pulskamp, 81, is parish priest at Star of the Valley Catholic Church in Oakmont and said in December that the abuse allegation “came as a shot out of nowhere.”

“It’s good news,” he said after learning Monday that he was no longer accused, “And that he just withdrew it, that’s wonderful, because nothing happened, as I told you before.

“I’m relieved.”

Santa Rosa attorney Adrienne Moran, who represents the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, was clearly angry about the mistake and appalled to see a shadow cast over 55 years of faithful service.

“You do not just get an oopsy, and a man’s whole career is destroyed, and then, ‘Oops, I was wrong,’ ” Moran said.

The case emerged during a three-year period authorized by the state Legislature during which adult survivors of child sex abuse age 40 and older could file lawsuits in state court despite the expiration of the statute of limitations in their cases.

The window, which closed New Year’s Eve, generated 1,545 new cases against the Roman Catholic Church, its clergy and other representatives in Northern California, at last count, according to East Bay attorney Rick Simons, liaison counsel for the Northern California Catholic clergy cases, all of which are being processed through the Alameda County Superior Court.

Though Pulskamp’s name, like those of most accused priests, did not appear in the case at issue, he was identified on a document created under court order and used to manage the myriad cases funneling through Alameda County Courtroom 21, led by Judge Evelio Grillo.

Crews is named as the accused in at least 10 of the new cases.

Alerted to the accusation against Pulskamp when that case was filed early last year, Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa brought it to the Diocesan Review Board for scrutiny, he said later.

But presented with no factual corroboration, no real detail about the specific allegations and no prior suggestion of misconduct on the part of the priest, the review board found it lacking in credibility, and Pulskamp was allowed to stay in the pulpit.

“I had complete confidence that Monsignor Pulskamp had never done anything wrong, and I’m pleased to see that has been vindicated,” Vasa said Monday. “God bless him.”

Dan McNevin, an abuse survivor and treasurer of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the situation is regrettable and rare, but understandable “because these are children who are trying to remember what happened to them.”

McNevin has been particularly interested in the Pulskamp case and had hoped to see him deposed because of the priest’s long history as chancellor for the diocese under multiple bishops during the height of the church’s local and national abuse scandals.

He said he still holds the priest accountable for years in which the church shrouded wrongdoing in secrecy.

“It is terrible when someone is accused falsely. It’s terrible, priest or not,” McNevin said. “He didn’t do it. He deserves to have his reputation intact, at least as it relates to the sexual abuse.

“But James Pulskamp should tell the truth about what he knows about abuse in Santa Rosa of others,” McNevin said.

Simons, the liaison counsel for the unified Catholic clergy cases, said Monday that with the abundance of cases, there are bound to be handful of problems, in part because of the trauma endured by child survivors of clergy abuse, who typically go years or, more often, decades without disclosing what happened to them.

“It doesn’t surprise or shock me that they got who the person was mixed up,” Simons said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it’s not unusual, and it’s probably something that in our now 1,500 cases wouldn’t be surprising to me if it happened three or four times,” he said.

Moran said the error should cause everyone to rethink how they view all such allegations.

“This is the unfortunate thing about these cases, is everyone presumes it must have happened, you must be guilty. Father Pulskamp said from the very beginning this never happened. There was no corroboration.

“And Bishop Vasa and the review board said, ‘We’re not removing him.’ “And thank God.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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