Unnerving Choices for Church Historians

Times Staff Writer

When beloved priests are revealed to be child molesters, Roman Catholic parishes, schools and dioceses face an uncomfortable choice: to remove existing tributes to the clerics and erase glowing references in local histories -- or explain to victims and critics why they continue to honor men who also were pedophiles.

This issue “taps into something that is very difficult for we humans to understand -- the tension that lies between the good that a person can do and the evil that we are all capable of,” said Shirl Giacomi, a top administrator with the Diocese of Orange.

“People who have known only the good [the priest has done] have difficulty understanding the evil,” she said. “And people that have been hurt cannot, rightly so, understand the good.”


Some church officials have opted to stick with the pre-revelatory status quo, arguing that history and achievements of the priests should not be obliterated by their misdeeds.

For instance, the official history of St. Cyril of Jerusalem Church in Encino credits its late pastor, Father Clinton Hagenbach, with establishing the parish’s first teen club. No mention is made that he has been accused of sexually abusing 18 boys and that the archdiocese paid $1.5 million in 2002 to settle one of those claims.

Michael A. Harris -- accused of molesting 12 boys and the subject of a $5.2-million settlement for one of his alleged victims -- continues to be lauded in a 2003-04 parent handbook as a guiding force in the creation of the $26-million Santa Margarita High School in southern Orange County.

Similar stances can be found in dioceses across the country. In the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., a near-life-size bust of founding Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, an admitted child molester, has been on display in the headquarters, and his picture hangs on the walls of schools and parishes there.

Knoxville officials said that the bust and portraits are not intended to honor O’Connell but are historical. It’s an argument that victims’ advocates find disingenuous.

“It shows what they say and what they truly believe are two different things,” said Susan Vance, a Catholic school teacher and former nun in Oak Ridge, Tenn., who has fought to have the bust and photos removed.


For critics, the reluctance by some Catholics to publicly tarnish the legacy of popular priests reveals their real feelings -- that the accusations were false or that they shouldn’t taint a long career dedicated to godly pursuits and the service of others.

“If a priest quit and opened an abortion clinic, no church or chancery on the planet would have his picture on their walls,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

The dilemma also highlights the complex relationship between those clerics accused of molestation and their faithful parishioners. In addition to the normal reverence given to a religious leader, Catholics believe the priests are Christ’s representatives on Earth and endowed with powers, including the ability to celebrate Mass, a ritual that the church teaches turns bread and water into the literal body and blood of Christ.

This makes it difficult for some congregants to even consider their priest could have led a double life.

“A priest in trouble is often surrounded by thankful members who say something like, ‘But Father O’Brien was there when I needed him. When my husband underwent surgery, Father was there the whole time, and we prayed together. I will never forget that,’ ” said Dean R. Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington. “Parishioners will say that even if there are accusations against the priest, which they often will not believe.”

When congregants at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita in southern Orange County were told in 2002 that their longtime pastor had admitted to molesting a boy three decades earlier, the first reaction by some was to name the parish hall after him. The idea was quickly dropped. Three more alleged victims have come forward since then.

The problem with how to handle a priest’s legacy is complicated when accusations have been made but courts or church officials have not determined their veracity.

Msgr. Leland Boyer, for example, former pastor of St. Bede the Venerable Church in La Canada-Flintridge, has been accused in lawsuits of molesting two boys. He also is honored on the church’s website with recordings of two homilies from his 2003 funeral.

“I just think of so many images of him -- as a priest par excellence, as a role model and exemplar,” Father Greg Coiro said in one of the homilies. “He was a good man, a decent man, a trustworthy man and an honest man.”

One of Boyer’s alleged victims said the parish should present a balanced view of Leland Boyer’s life, including the accusations of sexual abuse.

“They shouldn’t glorify him without acknowledging the other side,” said Dr. Jaime J. Romo, a professor at the University of San Diego who says he was molested as a child by Boyer during the 1970s. “It’s not meant to be hurtful, but it’s infuriating to victims.”

A call to St. Bede was referred to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A spokesman there said that any complaints would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, beginning at the parish level, but to date, none have been lodged.

Some Catholic institutions have simply deleted any references to a disgraced priest.

Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown ordered the removal of any photos honoring Harris at the two high schools he served as principal. And recently, Santa Margarita High School cut founding principal Harris from the history section of its website. School officials said Harris’ name would also be stricken from next year’s parent handbook.

Some say this strategy is less offensive than leaving tributes up but problematic because it helps keep secret the crimes committed by the priests.

“Wiping it off the history means the abuse never happened,” said Tammy Lerner, a victims advocate based in Pennsylvania who monitors such issues.

“You’re not then educating people to the fact that people who look like they’re upstanding members of the community can be molesters. It’s such an uncomfortable subject, but that’s the reality of it.”

Others say they understand the dilemma that’s before Catholic officials, especially because disclosure would entail the publishing of sexual misconduct allegations in places reserved for spiritual enlightenment.

“I’m not a fan of erasing history; that’s very dangerous,” said John Grimly, a 40-year-old attorney who alleged in a 2003 lawsuit that he had been molested by Harris, his principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

“But children shouldn’t be exposed to salacious information either. The fact is that people who committed heinous crimes usually get erased from history books for any good work that they’ve done.”



Rewriting history

A look at how founding principal and accused child molester Michael A. Harris was deleted from the official history of Santa Margarita High School this year, 10 years after he resigned amid a rising tide of allegations.

Original text:

Santa Margarita Catholic High School began as a dream of the late Bishop William R. Johnson. He saw the need and possibility of a Catholic high school in south Orange County. The dream became the vision of Father Michael A. Harris, then principal of Mater Dei Catholic High School in Santa Ana. Father Harris shared his vision with several prominent businessmen in the area. They caught his enthusiasm and the campaign began.

Revised text:

Santa Margarita Catholic High School began as a dream of the late Bishop William R. Johnson. He saw the need and possibility of a Catholic high school in south Orange County. The dream then became the vision of many who shared his ideas. They caught his enthusiasm and the campaign began.

Source: William Lobdell, Times staff writer

Los Angeles Times