Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa expresses ‘grief, shame, raging anger’ toward Catholic clergy accused of sex abuse

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Addressing the long history of sexual abuse by clergy in the local Catholic Church, Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa told reporters Monday that it was a source of “tremendous sadness and grief and shame and, honestly, a raging anger that these men did what they did.”

But Vasa said he would not second-guess the manner in which they were handled by his predecessors, saying cultural shifts and improved understanding of the traumatic harm suffered by victims have changed the way the church manages accusations brought forward in the modern age.

Critics have long believed church leaders of the past allowed abusive priests to take refuge in the large, semirural Diocese of Santa Rosa, which runs from Petaluma to the Oregon border. But Vasa said Monday diocesan authorities, like those anywhere else, were merely willing to “give a priest another chance.”

In a 30-minute news conference he suggested, however, that he might have acted more promptly than his predecessors when learning of abuse accusations.

“We can only live forward,” he said. “We can’t live backwards, and so I suspect I would have done some things differently. But in a different era, in a different age, when a bishop is assigned to a diocese, and he is in some kind of fraternity with his priests and has to maintain a cordial working relationship with his priests, it’s very difficult that a bishop can kind of step out of that role and say, ‘I’m going to report you to police.’ In the ’60s and ’70s that was a very difficult thing to do.

“Now, given the tenor of our times, I’m strongly inclined to do that,” he continued. “Even when I’m fairly certain that nothing untoward had occurred, I will report it to the police because that’s the route I need to take.”

Vasa, who has served the Northern California diocese for eight years, met with members of the Bay Area press corps following his release Saturday of a carefully curated list of credibly accused clergy who had served in the diocese since its founding in 1962 and had, at any time, been credibly accused of child sex abuse.

It includes four priests responsible on their own for abusing 63 of 100 known diocesan victims, he said, and 14 men whose alleged offenses occurred outside the diocese. Twenty-five of those on the list are deceased and none are in current pastoral service to the diocese.

Only four have been prosecuted criminally, with varying success. “Part of that is, sadly, the church’s fault,” Vasa said, and part of that is the function of the typical yearslong delay between childhood sexual abuse and reporting, combined with the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution.

Other cases have been settled in or outside of court, costing the diocese about $31 million, a figure that has inched up slightly from last fall due to some recent settlement negotiations, Vasa said. About $13 million of that has been covered through insurance, he said.

Vasa said he produced the list of accused clergy, as well as a series of articles published in the North Coast Catholic on Saturday, “as a sign of the church’s seriousness in regard to the sexual abuse of children in our society and especially in our church.”

“The release of names is made primarily for the sake of the victims — those who have come forward and those who have not yet found their voice,” he said. “I pray that those who continue to dwell in the shadows and who perhaps feel that no one will believe them will see in this moment the desire of the church to reach out to them to say to them, ‘We hear you, we believe you, and we want to help you.’ ”

Vasa also said that new allegations are expected and would be released as determined by law enforcement and the Diocesan Review Board.

A Northern California representative for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, praised Vasa for his thoroughness in assembling the list, particularly in comparison to one released by the Diocese of Monterey earlier this month, which omitted clergy accused of abuse outside the diocese.

“It is apparent that the Diocese understands that if a priest was accused of sex abuse in another Diocese, even though he was not accused in Santa Rosa facilities, there is a strong potential that the cleric may have abused in Santa Rosa facilities, as well,” North California Leader Joey Piscitelli said in a news release. “Releasing the names of these accused priests ... also may inspire victims who see the names of these priests to come forward, and potentially make a claim of abuse, and/or process healing, as they may feel empowered.”

But others, including the victim of a priest who served in Santa Rosa and San Francisco, have said the disclosures failed to come clean on the church’s efforts to protect offending priests and prevent accusers from getting justice.

“From our perspective, there has to be some transparency and accountability for those who are actually in charge,” said Michael Reck, an attorney with Jeff Anderson and Associates, a law firm specializing in clergy abuse cases that is representing a Southern California man who has sued all the Catholic dioceses in California. “There has to be full disclosures, because anything less than a full disclosure is truly just a half truth.”

The list of 39 clergy apparently once included former bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, who fell from grace in 1999 after admitting a two-year relationship with another priest who claimed he had been coerced. Ziemann also had been accused of molesting three boys while he was serving in the Los Angeles Diocese, but his name was removed from the list by request of the papal nuncio, as he was directly under the authority of the pope, the Santa Rosa Diocese said. Similarly, former St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Clayton Nienstedt, who served two years with the Napa Institute, resigning last year, was removed from the list, as well. His case remains under papal review.

Six other men whose cases were reviewed by Vasa were not identified on the list, including three who were investigated by law enforcement agencies and the allegations not substantiated, he said. One of the involved persons remains in ministry. A fourth case involves cases that do not suggest abuse. All six of the cases are known to members of the Diocesan Review Board, established in 2002, and four of the names are known to the Sonoma County District Attorney. The other two were investigated by law enforcement, Vasa said.

Vasa said he wanted to help bring healing, restore confidence and correct misapprehensions left, for instance, by the release last summer of a devastating grand jury report about the Catholic church in Pennsylvania. The report cited evidence involving the abuse of more than 1,000 children by 300 priests.

The public may have the misperception that those priests are still in active ministry, when they are not, he said. Like in Santa Rosa, they are retired, dead, or defrocked.

“There is no hiding of them,” he said, pointing to new programs established over the last 16 years to protect children and screen for abusive priests.

A live recording of the news conference can be found on the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa’s Facebook feed. The list and an explanation of its contents is at srdiocese.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan on Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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