Behind a Priest’s Suicide
On the day he was to report for jury duty, Father James Chevedden said the 11 a.m. Mass at the Sacred Heart chapel in Los Gatos before catching a ride downtown.
Shortly after jurors were dismissed on that breezy spring afternoon, security guards at a nearby transit authority building saw something falling from the six-story courthouse parking garage in San Jose.
At 4:48 p.m., paramedics found Chevedden’s body face up on a patch of dirt. He died on his 56th birthday.
Although no suicide note was found, authorities say the Jesuit priest took his own life. He had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and he had severely injured himself at least once before.
An obituary in the National Jesuit News reported that Chevedden jumped to his death May 19 last year “after a long struggle with mental illness.”
His fatal leap “was not an act of a person in possession of his rational capacities,” wrote Father John Martin, Chevedden’s superior at the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center.
But his therapist and distraught family members were puzzled. Chevedden seemed to be functioning well with prescribed medications and regular psychiatric treatment. He was active in the Bay Area, teaching catechism to children, leading Bible study groups and happily studying Judaism, Hebrew and Eastern Christianity.
It wasn’t Chevedden’s illness that had precipitated his death, they decided; it was something that had happened to him at Sacred Heart.
“In retrospect, I can understand that he just felt like there was no way out,” said psychiatrist George Maloof. “It’s a very sad tale.”
James Norman Chevedden was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the Ladera Heights area. He and his three brothers served as altar boys at St. John the Evangelist Church and graduated from Loyola High, the all-male prep school run by the Society of Jesus, an elite order within the Roman Catholic Church commonly known as the Jesuits.
Chevedden enrolled in a Jesuit seminary at age 18. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and a master’s degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.
Inspired by his mentor, Father Francis Rouleau, a Jesuit scholar and longtime missionary, Chevedden spent several years studying Chinese in Hsinchu and theology at Fu Jen University in Taipei, Taiwan. He was ordained a priest in 1978.
For nearly two decades, he held various positions in Taiwan, from director of a dormitory for high school boys to pastor in a remote mountain village. He enjoyed playing piano and composed liturgical music in Chinese.
“He was kind of a quiet, humble guy who was genuine and honest,” recalled David Hammons, a Bay Area physician who went to high school with Chevedden. “I know that Jim really enjoyed being a priest.”
The first indication of a psychiatric problem surfaced in summer 1995 during a series of rambling phone calls placed from Taiwan to his parents and to Jesuit superiors. Chevedden said he was fearful of being followed and killed, according to medical reports.
“He didn’t seem rational,” said his father, Ray, a retired aerospace engineer.
The priest, then 47, was admitted to a psychiatric ward at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco and placed on a legal hold as a “danger to self,” records show. Doctors at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., diagnosed him as suffering from an anxiety disorder that was probably exacerbated by his missionary duties in Taiwan.
“Under times of increased stress, Father Chevedden can feel depleted, and his anxiety can escalate quickly into panic with paranoia,” wrote Dr. John R. Whipple.
By 1996, Chevedden had become disillusioned with the Jesuit order and began looking for a teaching position in Los Angeles outside the Catholic school system. Under a temporary leave, the Jesuits provided a used Geo Prizm vehicle and $1,000 a month. Like all Jesuits who take a vow of poverty, he had no savings or retirement benefits.
Unable to land a job, Chevedden resumed his ministry in the Bay Area, where he developed a loyal following among Chinese Catholic families.
“He was loved by us as if he were a member of our own family,” said Yvonne Chow, who pursued Bible studies with Chevedden. “He was always so willing to give. He rarely said no to others.”
But his psychiatric problems persisted.
On Aug. 19, 1998, Chevedden jumped from a window-washing scaffold on the Sacred Heart grounds. His injuries included two fractured feet that required extensive surgery.
Accounts of why he jumped vary.
“He told us he was feeling so good about his own condition that he had stopped taking his medicines,” said Paul Chevedden, his twin brother. “From then on, he recognized that he absolutely needed them.”
Father Martin, the superior at Sacred Heart, told authorities last year that Chevedden had tried to commit suicide in the 1998 incident.
But the Jesuit in charge of the California Province described Chevedden as having had “a paranoid psychotic break.” Said Father Thomas H. Smolich: “He was not intending to take his life.”
After surgery, Chevedden was transferred to the infirmary at Sacred Heart. Confined to a wheelchair with casts on both feet, he was escorted around the retreat on many days by a fellow Jesuit, Brother Charles Leonard Connor.
During this recovery period, Chevedden said, Connor sexually molested and physically abused him. The alleged misconduct is described in reports that Chevedden submitted to Jesuit superiors, in notes of counseling sessions with his psychiatrist and in private e-mails to family members.
Chevedden said Connor occasionally massaged his shoulders. One day, after Connor had pushed Chevedden in his wheelchair to a third-floor computer room, the brother allegedly placed one hand inside the priest’s pajama bottoms and touched his penis.
Chevedden told family members that he was taken aback by Connor’s actions and resisted any further advances. Days later, Chevedden alleged, Connor retaliated by ramming his wheelchair into a barrier, causing excruciating pain to both feet.
“I judge these acts of Brother Connor to be particularly cruel, because I was so vulnerable at the time,” Chevedden wrote.
Connor, now 84, has denied the accusations.
Chevedden did not immediately report Connor’s alleged improprieties to Jesuit superiors, because he was embarrassed and did not think they would believe him, he later told relatives and his psychiatrist.
At the time, Chevedden had no way of knowing that Jesuit leaders had received complaints dating to 1995 alleging that Connor had sexually assaulted a mentally disabled dishwasher at the Sacred Heart facility. The Jesuits did not refer the matter to authorities. Acting on a tip in June 2000, police executed a search warrant at Sacred Heart and found internal memos incriminating Connor in the abuse.
At the insistence of authorities, the Jesuits transferred Connor away from his victim at Sacred Heart.
He was convicted of a felony sex crime in 2001 and ordered to serve six months of home detention, register as a lifetime sex offender and refrain from any contact with mentally disabled adults or minors.
In March 2002, The Times reported that the Jesuits had concealed the initial sexual abuse allegations against Connor from law enforcement.
Throughout the summer, the Jesuits negotiated a $7.5-million settlement with the dishwasher and another mentally disabled victim, both in their 50s, who said they had been sodomized and sexually assaulted by Connor and another elderly Jesuit at Sacred Heart.
It was during this period that Chevedden complained about Connor to his superiors.
“But when I found that they seemed to take no notice of it, I put a statement in writing,” Chevedden said in a June 27, 2002, e-mail to his family. “Now I believe that they will investigate the matter.”
Jesuit leaders sought to quietly resolve Chevedden’s complaints, internal records show. Smolich, who oversees one of 10 Jesuit provinces in the U.S. and reports directly to Rome, arranged to meet privately with Chevedden and Connor “to get this squared away person to person,” he wrote on Sept. 10, 2002.
“I am somewhat nervous about this meeting,” Chevedden told family members in an e-mail. “But I will just present the truth of my two accusations. Please pray for me.”
The session proved a disappointment to Chevedden.
“Brother Connor not only said he did not remember the two incidents, he categorically denied the accusations,” Chevedden wrote. “I was unhappy that Father Smolich, while trying to appear even-handed, sided more with Brother Connor.”
Smolich said Chevedden’s allegations “were investigated and could not be proven credible. Both incidents took place in public, there were no actions of overt sexual behavior and there was no suggestion that either incident was a prelude to additional inappropriate activity.”
He added: “In all likelihood, Father Chevedden’s fears, combined with publicity about Brother Connor’s past misconduct, could have created for him a reality which did not exist.”
But a San Francisco psychiatrist, whom the Jesuits paid to treat Chevedden, said he is convinced that the priest told the truth about Connor.
“He had paranoid delusions,” said Maloof, 65, who considers himself an orthodox Catholic and counseled Chevedden for two years before his death. “But I have no doubt that Father Chevedden was accurate in what he described. He was very precise in detailing and documenting what transpired.”
Maloof has practiced psychiatry for more than three decades and is president of the San Francisco Guild of the Catholic Medical Assn., an organization of doctors devoted to preserving the principles of their faith in the practice of medicine. He said he met at Smolich’s request with Chevedden and Martin, the superior at Sacred Heart, on Sept. 26, 2002, at the Jesuits’ Loyola House in San Francisco.
According to Maloof’s notes, Martin conceded that Connor may have had a memory lapse about the alleged molestation.
“Father Martin just laid it out, [saying], ‘We’re in this together. We don’t want any more lawsuits. So, we’ve got to work something out here,’ ” Maloof recalled in an interview.
The purpose of the meeting, according to the psychiatrist, was to keep the allegations from becoming public. He said Jesuit leaders appeared far more interested in “exerting damage control” than in caring for his client.
“They didn’t want another case involving Brother Connor,” Maloof said. “They were determined to quash any further disclosures of abuse.”
Smolich responded: “It isn’t as simple as Dr. Maloof is portraying.” He declined to elaborate.
Martin declined to be interviewed for this story. He said in an e-mail response that Chevedden “was much appreciated, encouraged and supported in every way possible” by the Jesuits.
Frustrated by his superiors, Chevedden was determined to notify police about Connor’s actions and make his allegations public. “He was ready to blow the whistle,” Maloof said.
But the psychiatrist, noting that the Jesuits controlled priest assignments and living conditions, persuaded Chevedden that he had to keep quiet about the allegations and work out an acceptable compromise with his superiors if he wanted to remain with the Society of Jesus.
“I was the one who put the brakes on it,” Maloof acknowledged. “If I have any regret, it is that I did that.”
Smolich added: “If Jim wanted to go to the police, we would never have stopped him.”
Jesuit leaders and Chevedden agreed on a set of restrictions for Connor. He was ordered not to initiate any contact with Chevedden, not to go near Chevedden’s room and to avoid sitting at a table in the Sacred Heart dining hall if Chevedden was present, according to Smolich. Those restrictions were not always followed, Chevedden told his psychiatrist and family.
When Chevedden jumped to his death last year, he became another tragic statistic -- one of at least 55 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse who have killed themselves in the U.S. since 1990, according to research by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Chevedden’s allegations would not have come to light if “he had not jumped off that building,” said Robert L. Mezzetti II, a San Jose attorney who represents the priest’s family and helped negotiate the settlement for Connor’s mentally disabled victims.
“The Jesuits keep saying that they’ve learned their lesson, and they keep apologizing,” Mezzetti said, “but they don’t change their ways.”
After the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, at least five Jesuit members of the California Province who had been convicted of sex crimes or accused of molesting minors were transferred to the Sacred Heart facility. The picturesque retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains provides a haven and support for Jesuit sex offenders.
The reassignments meant that Brother Connor, who had been sent away from Sacred Heart in 2000, and Father Chevedden would once again share the same residence -- an arrangement that the priest’s psychiatrist said he warned Jesuit leaders was a big mistake.
“I told them from my experience [that] to put a victim and a perpetrator together in a very loose environment is completely unsupportable,” Maloof said.
Although Chevedden lodged no further complaints of abuse, he made several requests to separate himself from Connor.
He was sent back to Taiwan, but returned to Sacred Heart within weeks when his assignment became too stressful.
He sought a transfer to Chinese Catholic parishes in New York and Boston. He asked to live at the Jesuit community at Santa Clara University.
And, shortly before his death, he made plans to study at the University of Notre Dame “to get away from” Sacred Heart, according to his psychiatrist’s notes.
“He didn’t mind being at Sacred Heart,” Maloof said. “He just couldn’t stand being with the sex molesters, especially Brother Connor.”
Jesuit superiors said they kept Chevedden at Sacred Heart because the residence was best suited for him.
“None of the communities he requested were able to provide the necessary level of support and supervision for a man with significant mental health issues,” Smolich said.
Relatives contend that Jesuit leaders have exploited Chevedden’s sickness in an effort to sidestep any responsibility for his death.
“The Jesuits have disseminated half a story, while burying the other half,” Paul Chevedden said. “They are engaged in a campaign of cover-up and spin that places all the blame on Jim.”
In May, attorneys for the Chevedden family filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages from the Jesuits.
While declining to discuss pending litigation, the Jesuits maintain that the lawsuit has no merit. But Smolich said the Jesuits remained willing to negotiate “a just and fair closure” to the case.
“Death is never easy for family and friends,” he said. “A self-inflicted death leaves all with questions and a desire to understand what happened. Unfortunately, in Father Chevedden’s case that will likely not occur.”