Catholic Church’s Santa Rosa Diocese to name priests accused of sex abuse

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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.

In each case so far, the law firm has included more priests than church officials have named, demonstrating a consistent practice of under-counting, firm representatives say.

Anderson & Associates is preparing to release a list for the Santa Rosa Diocese, though it’s not clear when that might be, Wall said.

Vasa stressed the diocese had made a scrupulous effort to include every name church leaders were aware of and believed should be included on the list.

“I’m giving the fullest possible benefit of the doubt to the accused, which is terribly unfair in our American system of justice and right to due process, but at this stage, I really want to be as transparent as possible,” Vasa said. “I’m not attesting that I know these men are guilty. I’m attesting that they have been accused. That’s all. So it’s a delicate balance and I think you’ll find the information we’re releasing significant and important.”

“It’s a starting point,” said Melanie Sakoda, national secretary and a Bay Area leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

“It helps survivors who may have thought they were the only person abused by this priest, and may think, ‘Hey, it wasn’t just me.’ It may help them heal,’ she said. “But it’s just a starting point.”

Eureka attorney Bill Bertain, a lifelong Catholic whose church participation and longevity on the North Coast has put him in touch with multiple survivors, said he’s troubled by how readily church leaders of the past seem to have overlooked passages of scripture that highlight the danger to those who allow “these little ones to stumble.”

“That’s the sadness of this whole thing. It ruins the lives of, negatively impacts and makes difficult the lives of those that these priests have molested or raped or abused,” said Bertain, 71. “And it also causes great sadness for the families of these victims and causes many of them to remove themselves from participation in the sacraments at the Catholic churches, and it causes even more scandal with the wider public who aren’t even Catholic.”

Even before the clergy abuse scandal burst open on the North Coast in 1994, when the first person came forward accusing then-Father Gary Timmons of sex abuse, Bertain had begun to hear of troubling “back rubs” and eventually other odd games and practices mostly related to Camp St. Michael, a church summer camp in Mendocino County that he founded.

In 1993, Bertain, wrote to Timmons and to then-Bishop Ziemann warning of the potential legal problems and embarrassment that could arise from a back rub Timmons gave to a 13-year-old boy.

Later testimony in a civil lawsuit would show that local church officials had long harbored concerns about Timmons, who was accused of molesting children in his care as early as 1969, including one who testified to knowing that Timmons brought boys to his room at the rectory at St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa.

Monsignor Gerard Fahey said in a 1995 deposition that he knew Timmons’ was bringing young boys to spend the night at St. Eugene’s rectory early as 1976. Fahey, then pastor of St. Eugene’s, said it was not his business to supervise Timmons because “the priests’ rooms were their castles. What they did there was no concern of mine.”

Vasa, who heads a diocese of nearly 140,000 parishioners in 40 churches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, has said the list of names he plans to release Saturday will include about two dozen names, most of them deceased and most of them already known to the public, though a few may not be. It will include about 16 priests who served in the Santa Rosa Diocese whose alleged misconduct occurred elsewhere, as well as members of various Catholic orders.

He said the list has been vetted with local priests and is the culmination of weeks of research intended to produce as complete a product as possible.

“I cannot determine what people will say,” Vasa said. “I appreciate that people will feel that no matter what we do is probably not going to seem like enough.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately describe Monsignor Gerard Fahey's 1995 deposition. Fahey testified he was aware that Father Gary Timmons had brought young boys to spend the night at the St. Eugene's rectory. He did not say he was aware of Timmons’ misconduct.

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

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