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Diocese Leaders Deny Knowing Priest’s History

Times Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic bishop emeritus of Oakland testified Monday that he was unaware that a priest he promoted had been accused of fondling an altar boy four years earlier.

Bishop John Cummins told jurors that he did not review the personnel file of Father Robert Ponciroli before naming him pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Antioch in 1979. The file contained an internal church memo documenting the sex-abuse allegation against the priest.

Another former high-ranking diocesan cleric, Father Brian Joyce, also testified Monday in the case in Alameda County Superior Court that he had not seen the memo written to himself by then-Bishop Floyd Begin until last year. “I was wrong,” he told jurors several times in response to questions about his failure to detect problems with the priest.

The May 22, 1975, memo records the bishop’s conversation with parents who told him that their son said Ponciroli “took my pants down, touched my privates.” It also reports that someone saw a boy, naked from the waist up, lying on a table with Ponciroli “tickling” him.

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Police found the memo in the priest’s personnel file during a 2002 criminal investigation. Six felony child molestation charges against Ponciroli were later dropped because the accusations were too old. Ponciroli had admitted abuse to police and said he was “a sick puppy,” according to police.

This is the first trial at which prosecutors are alleging that the Oakland diocese failed to protect children from predatory priests. In the case, two brothers are suing the diocese for damage they say they suffered after being sexually abused by Ponciroli in 1980. The priest, now 68, is retired and living in Florida.

The claim is one of more than 700 filed against the Catholic church in California, including 544 involving the Los Angeles Archdiocese, under a 2003 state law lifting the statute of limitations in decades-old sexual abuse cases. Last month, a San Francisco jury awarded a man $437,000 in the first civil sex-abuse case tried under the law. The verdicts in these first cases could influence the outcomes of others.

In both the Oakland and San Francisco cases, the church has admitted that the abuse occurred, leaving jurors to decide the extent of the damage suffered and the amount of compensation for each victim. One of the brothers in the Oakland case is seeking punitive damages against the church.

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Allen Vigneron, the current bishop of Oakland, also testified briefly Monday that since joining the diocese in 2002, he has tried to prevent sexual abuse of children by priests.

Cummins, his predecessor, said he never looked at Ponciroli’s personnel file nor received reports of accusations against the priest. He said had “no idea” why the information had not been reported to him.

Joyce, who was chancellor for the diocese in the 1970s, signed letters transferring Ponciroli from St. Cornelius Catholic Church in Richmond to associate pastor of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Castro Valley, five weeks after Begin’s memo was dated, and to pastor of St. Ignatius four years later.

He told jurors that it was not unusual for Begin, who died in 1977, to deal privately with priests.

“It was unfortunate, but that was the practice,” said Joyce, now pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Pleasant Hill, in Contra Costa County.

The priest said Begin never told him about the molestation accusation or showed him the memo. “You knew the conduct described in the memo was criminal?” attorney Rick Simons, who represents the brothers suing the church, asked the cleric. “Absolutely,” Joyce responded.

He told jurors that he knew Ponciroli had problems controlling his anger and was known to intimidate his parishioners, especially children. But he said he failed to equate reports that Ponciroli tickled boys in public with possible sexual abuse.

“I was wrong. I misread it. I thought it was his anger” that was the problem, Joyce testified.

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On cross-examination, the priest told jurors that he confronted Ponciroli in late 1974 or early 1975 about his temperament but did not know at the time that he was sexually abusive to children.

“Did you believe he was a sex offender?” church attorney Allen Ruby asked.

“In no way,” Joyce answered.

Cummins was not the first California bishop to testify that he had missed warning signs because he failed to look at internal church files.

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony testified in 1998 in a Stockton sex-abuse case that he did not know the files of a priest he transferred contained a copy of a 1976 apology from the priest to the parents of an 11-year-old girl he touched sexually. That case resulted in a $30-million jury verdict against the Stockton diocese, later reduced to $7 million.


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