As the congregants filed out of a Catholic church in south Orange County on Sunday, some were angry, others in tears. All were stunned. They had just learned that their priest for the last 12 years had been forced to resign because, at one point in his ministry, he had sexually molested a teenager.
In stark contrast to the secrecy with which the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has dismissed up to a dozen priests in recent weeks, the members of San Francisco Solano Church learned from their priest at the end of Mass that he was leaving them. They would learn more, Father Michael Pecharich told them, from a one-page letter they would be handed as they left.
The congregants gave the departing priest a standing ovation, then shuffled out to receive the letters, which said that 19 years ago, Pecharich had "transgressed the personal boundaries of an adolescent." As a result of the Diocese of Orange's new "zero tolerance" policy for priests who sexually abuse minors, he had been asked to leave.
Parishioners Are Outraged, Saddened
In the courtyard and meeting rooms of the Rancho Santa Margarita church, parishioners passionately debated the news, some visibly trembling while others raised their voices, rubbed red eyes or hugged each other.
Parents angrily asked why they hadn't been told before that their priest had this sexual impropriety in his background. Diocese officials said they have known since 1996, when the victim, who was a teenage boy at the time of the molestation, came forward.
Others wondered about the meaning of redemption in the church: Why was Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown taking such drastic measures when the misdeed had occurred 19 years ago, Pecharich had confessed to it and had lived an apparently blameless life since?
"Whatever happened, happened 19 years ago," said Hilda Glenski, who teaches Sunday school at the church. "The diocese has known about it. Why now?"
The reason is that the diocese, along with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, recently reached a $5.2-million settlement in a sexual molestation lawsuit that requires it to dismiss any employees who have been found to have committed such acts.
Some congregants floated the idea of naming the new parish hall after Pecharich as a tribute, which brought an enraged outburst from one man who said they must be crazy. "Don't put this man on a pedestal," the man said, noting that he has children who attend the church.
The polarized debate mirrors a similar soul-searching taking place across the country as the U.S. Catholic Church grapples with the largest molestation scandal in its history, and what to do with clergy who have sexual molestation of minors in their background.
Pecharich's victim declined to press charges and never filed suit, church officials said. He came forward because he wanted to prevent something similar from happening to another boy, officials added, and because he wanted an apology, which Pecharich gave him.
For the last week, a special diocesan task force, made up of two attorneys, two psychologists and two priests, has been poring through the personnel file of every Roman Catholic clergy member in Orange County, looking for proven allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Church officials said Pecharich has been the only priest so far to trigger the zero-tolerance mechanism, but it would take about two more weeks to finish the investigation.
Brown said he won't ask the Vatican to remove Pecharich, 57, from the priesthood, but he has been stripped of the ability to perform official Catholic functions such as baptisms, funerals or Communions. And he no longer will have a job with the diocese.
"The church for so long has thought if they put these priests in treatment, then they are fine to go back into circulation," said Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine attorney who represented Ryan DiMaria in the case against Msgr. Michael Harris, a popular principal at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita. "History has shown this not to be the case."
A diocesan official told concerned San Francisco Solano congregants that the priest will "receive financial assistance" from the diocese, "for as long as he wants or needs it."
"[Pecharich] is effective and well-liked, but you can't make exceptions to the policy," Brown said. "It's painful, but it's good from the standpoint that we will not put any child at risk."
Brown said the policy allows him to tell parishioners that the diocese doesn't have any known child molesters in its ministries. Before the zero-tolerance was adopted, priests found sexually abusing minors were often sent to counseling and put on probation, but allowed to return to the ministry.
Pecharich was the founding pastor of San Francisco Solano, which has grown up along with the surrounding city of Rancho Santa Margarita and now has more than 16,000 congregants. Known as a prodigious fund-raiser and top-notch manager, the priest was able to raise millions of dollars to build a 1,000-seat sanctuary, education buildings and meeting halls in little more than 12 years.
Two High-Profile Priests Are Removed
He is the second high-profile Orange County priest to be ousted from his church in the last year after past sexual misconduct had surfaced. Father John Lenihan was removed in September from St. Edward Church in Dana Point.
Lenihan's removal came a month after the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses paid a record $5.2 million to settle sexual abuse allegations brought against Harris.
The church also apologized to four other alleged victims. San Francisco Solano is located adjacent to Santa Margarita Catholic High and held services in the school gym for years until its sanctuary was built.
The announcement also was another hit to the morale of local priests, who have had to weather numerous sexual molestation scandals and now sometimes take off their Roman collars when at the grocery store.
"I'm shocked and saddened by the whole situation," said Father Alex Kim, who served at the church with Pecharich and is now director of the county's Korean Martyrs Catholic Center in Westminster. "With the atmosphere these days, the church doesn't have many options."