Santa Rosa Bishop to disclose accused priests’ names

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Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa has pledged to release the names of Catholic priests with ties to the diocese who have been accused of sexually abusing children, but said he wants to wait until after the holidays to join other California bishops making similar disclosures.

Vasa, bishop in the sprawling Santa Rosa Diocese for the past seven years, said he expects to reveal about 23 names, many already known to the public because of lawsuits, settlements and other disclosures dating back more than 20 years and costing the diocese more than $29 million.

“I want to say ultimately as I stand before Almighty God, that I protected the names of people presumed to be innocent, and that I was as transparent as I could be for the support of the victims,” he said.

A handful of those clergymen expected to be included will not be familiar to local parishioners, most likely because the priests were accused long after their local service ended or even years after their deaths, Vasa said. The list will include priests whose alleged misconduct occurred outside the Santa Rosa Diocese, he said.

Following others

The planned disclosure would follow similar moves recently in other California dioceses amid a resurgence of concern about long-held secrets kept by the church. A damning investigation completed this summer in Pennsylvania identified more than 300 priests said to have abused at least 1,000 children around the state over seven decades.

Vasa said his research reveals roughly 95 involved victims locally, about 55 of them victimized by just three priests — who he called “clearly the bad actors.”

He said it would probably be January before he makes the list public — after the Christmas holidays and after he has had ample time to vet the names with advisers, including two retired judges who are among the region’s parishioners and who have been enlisted by the diocese to help determine which names can be released legally, given California personnel confidentiality laws.

“I want to make sure that once I present the list, it as complete and final as I can make it,” he said. And “I don’t want to do anything during Advent and Christmas.”

An early scandal

The Santa Rosa Diocese emerged early on as an epicenter in the church’s long-running child molestation scandal that erupted nationally in 2002. The first in a wave of local cases hit in 1994, when the victim of a later defrocked priest named Gary Timmons came forward to allege misconduct.

Timmons, once pastor at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Rohnert Park, among others, eventually faced civil and criminal charges involving abuse of as many as 18 young people, some of them molested at youth camp or in parishes in Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. He would later serve four years in state prison and is required to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.

The Santa Rosa Diocese has paid out more than $29 million in settlements to childhood victims of at least 10 abusers since the 1990s. About $12 million was covered by insurance, so the diocesan share was just under $17 million, Vasa said this week.

The most recent payout appears to be a $3.5 million settlement reached in 2014 in the case of a former Lakeport priest, the late Rev. Ted Oswald, who molested a 12-year-old boy a year after the diocese had settled with two other victims of his for a total of $1.3 million. Oswald had by then been removed as pastor of St. Mary’s Immaculate Church but remained a priest and lived nearby. He also had served at churches in Ukiah, Cotati and Santa Rosa.

‘Renewal of the crisis’

Vasa’s decision to publish a list of accused priests resulted from what he called “a kind of renewal of the crisis” in the Catholic Church, prompted in large part by the August release of the scathing Pennsylvania Grand Jury report. It cited a systemic, institutional failure to protect children through the practice of reassigning accused priests rather than removing them from ministry.

The grand jury also said records show a pattern of managing abuse cases in order to avoid public scandal. Police were not to be involved. Complaints were kept locked away, in secret.

Similar criticisms appeared in an Oct. 2 lawsuit filed by a Southern California abuse survivor who claims California bishops have long engaged in a civil conspiracy to cover up abuse and simply move offending priests to new churches when they offend.

The case, filed against every Catholic diocese in the state, including Santa Rosa, as well as the Archdiocese of Chicago, is an attempt to force the dioceses “to come clean” and disclose the names of abusive priests, according to the plaintiff, Tom Emens, and his St. Paul, Minnesota-based attorney, Jeff Anderson, whose firm also has offices in California and four additional states.

It highlights the Santa Rosa Diocese’s 2003 acknowledgment of 16 priests who had worked in the diocese since 1962 and had been accused of sexual misconduct with minors at some point. It also notes that, while some names had been made public by victims or through court proceedings, the church had concealed the priests’ names. The diocese says names have been withheld because of confidentiality in personnel matters mandated by state law.

Another lawsuit

Jeff Anderson & Associates, which has been working with survivors of clergy abuse for 35 years, including some from Sonoma County and the North Bay, followed last Wednesday with another suit against the pope on behalf of two clients, saying the Vatican “has known about the widespread problem of child abuse committed by its clergy for centuries, but has covered up that abuse and thereby perpetuated the abuse.”

Since September, the San Diego, San Jose and San Bernardino dioceses have each released new names or official lists of accused priests, while the Oakland Diocese has announced it has a list it plans to make public, as well.

Vasa, who presides over 40 churches and nearly 140,000 Catholic parishioners between Petaluma and the Oregon border, told the congregation at St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa about his plans last Sunday.

In interviews, he said he had spent more than three weeks immersed in reports, press accounts and internet searches intended to turn up every person who might appropriately be included on the list.

“For me it’s an affirmation to anyone who has been victimized that the church is willing to reveal these names and that we want to be a part of the solution and that we want people to be able to come to church knowing that their concerns will be heard, that their past hurts will be compassionately dealt with, and that we are serious about keeping children safe into the future,” he said.

But “it’s not a clear, black and white sort of thing,” he said.

While some allegations may be detailed and specific, and corroborated through multiple victims, others are unsubstantiated and inconclusive, particularly where they occurred long ago or involve a priest who may be long dead. One report involves a case of overzealous spanking — a problem of another kind, Vasa said.

Several other priests who appear on a public website exposing alleged abusers will not be appearing on the forthcoming list, including one who was fully exonerated and another whose conduct involved men over age 18, Vasa said.

Survivors respond

Melanie Sakoda, a Bay Area spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the organization and its supporters “believe the only way to get to the truth” is to have full law enforcement investigations like the one conducted by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

“We have found that most of these lists are incomplete,” she said.

In a press conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Anderson, the Minnesota attorney, sought to prove that point, releasing the names of 212 accused priests from the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose dioceses. The names were gleaned from public sources that he says demonstrate under-counting by the church during earlier accounting and in the list released by the San Jose bishop last week, though the San Jose Diocese said the discrepancy involved mainly priests who belonged to religious orders or were otherwise not under diocesan supervision.

Predecessor’s inaction

The Anderson report specifically called out Vasa’s predecessor, former Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh, once a priest in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, for his inaction in an investigation of a repeatedly accused Honolulu bishop. Later, Walsh and his staff in Santa Rosa waited several days to report child molestation allegations raised in 2006 against a Sonoma priest named Francisco Xavier Ochoa. The church alerted Sonoma County Child Protective Services the Monday after a Friday meeting in which Ochoa admitted inappropriate contact with children. A report was faxed that Tuesday to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office but had to be resent a day later.

The delay allowed Ochoa to flee to Mexico and evade prosecution. He remained a fugitive until his death in 2009, despite at least five victims who came forward as accusers.

The report also included three other priests who have served in the Santa Rosa Diocese, including Father J. Patrick Foley, who served locally from 1998 to 1999 and was included in the San Diego Bishop’s list released in September; Franciscan Priest Francis J. Ford, who was associated with St. Rose’s Catholic Church from 1970 to 1972 and also worked extensively in Napa; and Austin Peter Keegan, a notorious pedophile priest connected with at least 80 victims and accused of molesting boys in Santa Rosa at least 50 times from 1979 to 1982.

Legal constraints

Vasa said he wished he was at liberty to disclose more information than he can, given legal constraints that he said govern worker confidentiality even in such cases. He was critical of those who would release names indiscriminately, without any corroboration or investigation. He said that while he treats any accusation that might come forward as “credible” until proven otherwise, it’s a weak and ill-defined term to use when deciding when to waive the presumption of innocence and undermine a clergyman’s otherwise unblemished reputation in cases that can be complex and dated.

The two retired judges enlisted by Vasa to review diocesan records and determine which names can be made public are Daniel “Mike” Hanlon, former presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal and former presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, and former San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charlotte Walter Woolard. Both are residents of Sonoma County. Hanlon also has served with Vasa on the board of directors for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

Vasa said sexual abuse remains prevalent throughout society, “and the fact that is infiltrated into the church is a great, great sadness.”

But he said all such accusations are taken to the Diocesan Review Board once they’ve already been reported to Child Protective Services and law enforcement.

“My job is to make sure that they don’t harm anyone else,” he said.

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

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