Struggling with accusations against two priests suspected of possessing child pornography, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange finds itself a reluctant pioneer in a frontier unforeseen by the church’s recently adopted zero-tolerance stance on sexual abuse.
The policy, adopted by U.S. dioceses last year in response to the church’s molestation scandals, requires that priests facing a single credible allegation of physically abusing minors be dismissed. The wording makes no mention of cases -- such as those that became public in Orange County last week -- in which priests are suspected of possessing images of children engaged in sex acts.
In explaining why one of the accused priests was allowed to continue working in a parish with an elementary school on its grounds, Father Michael McKiernan wrote in an e-mail to a concerned Catholic earlier this year that zero tolerance refers only to those “who have ‘engaged in’ molestation.”
But on Tuesday, Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown said he would propose that the diocesan Sexual Misconduct Oversight and Review Board add possession of child pornography to acts covered by the diocese’s zero-tolerance policy. Critics of diocesan action in the latest cases say having child porn should obviously fall under zero tolerance. “To accuse us of breaking zero tolerance isn’t fair or correct,” Brown said. “The downloading of pornography is terrible -- but a clear, written policy doesn’t exist.”
The delivery of pornography on the Internet complicates things. Like police, diocesan officials, with limited expertise, are often unable to determine who downloaded illegal images and whether the act was intentional.
With the diocese slowly sorting through all this -- one of the cases is nearly 2 years old -- the two priests under investigation were placed on administrative leave this week after their cases became public.
Church officials said Father Cesar Salazar of St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana asked Monday to be relieved of his ministry until the investigation of his case is complete. The same day, Father Dominic Nguyen, who was working at diocesan headquarters in a restricted desk job because of the child-porn allegation, was suspended until the sexual misconduct review board evaluates the allegation against him.
In both cases, prosecutors declined to file charges after police investigations. With Salazar, Santa Ana police, who found about 100 illegal images on a computer he had once owned, recommended that the priest be charged. But the next day, the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, saying there was a lack of evidence. The FBI launched an inquiry early this month into see whether federal charges are warranted.
Nguyen was investigated by the Twin Falls Police Department in Idaho, where he had been sent on a rehabilitation assignment after having a relationship with a woman. Authorities there said a church computer technician found child pornography on the priest’s computer in January 2002. The Twins Fall County prosecutor declined to file charges after a five-month investigation.
Prosecuting attorney Grant Loebs said his office couldn’t prove “possession of pornography” because the photos might have simply been viewed, which is not necessarily illegal, and not intentionally stored, which constitutes illegal possession. The pictures also might have been unsolicited, and, though unlikely, others might have accessed the priest’s computer.
In handling the two child-porn cases that have faced them so far, church officials in Orange County have given two reasons for retaining the priests concerned: the zero-tolerance policy does not include the offense and civil authorities did not find enough evidence to prosecute. As a precaution, however, they have given the accused priests psychological tests and counseling and restricted their ministries to prevent contact with children.
But victim advocates say making such a distinction between physical sexual abuse and viewing child pornography is another way to protect dangerous priests.
“Technically, you can artfully get around” the zero-tolerance guidelines, said Ryan DiMaria, a victim of molestation by a priest who won a $5.2-million settlement from the dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange in 2001, which mandated the zero-tolerance policy. He is now a Costa Mesa attorney who specializes in sexual-abuse cases. “But it’s a sad day when the Catholic Church tries to find ways to retain a priest who [allegedly] downloads and views child pornography.”
Also angering victims of sexual abuse is diocesan officials’ reliance on prosecutors to file charges before it acts.
“Who cares whether the district attorney files charges or not?” said Lee Bashforth, director of the Orange County chapter of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. “The church is supposed to be the moral authority.”
But church officials and prosecutors say evidence and proof aren’t that easy. Junk e-mails, pop-up ads and misleading Web links can dump pornographic material on to a computer’s hard drive without the operator’s knowledge. It’s also difficult maintaining an unbroken “chain of evidence” because of the potential of multiple users on a single computer. In the Salazar case, the computer changed hands at least twice after the priest owned it.
The cases have waded into the gray area of computer forensics, which, like analysis of DNA, fingerprints and other physical evidence, is not always an exact science. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said that possession of child porn would be viewed as a zero-tolerance offense there and that new language was being added to the church’s policy to reflect this.
“Our starting point for this discussion is that child pornography is child abuse,” said the spokesman, Tod Tamberg.
In the Diocese of Orange, Brown said he would work to streamline the review process so such cases are dealt with more quickly. The Salazar accusation first arose in September 2001.
“We need to move more efficiently and effectively,” said Brown, who also said he learned only last week that a choir director for three parishes had been convicted of lewd conduct 18 years ago. The news came more than 90 days after fingerprinting had uncovered the conviction to the diocesan staff. The choir director was fired last week after the case became public.
Because of vacation schedules, the sexual misconduct review board -- made up of four lay members, a priest and a nun -- has been unable to hold an emergency meeting to address the current matters, though church officials said they were trying to set up a session for next week.