A sordid secret life? Priest, now dead, accused of raping 7-year-old girl, fathering another child

"Jane Doe"
“Jane Doe” is suing the San Diego and San Bernardino dioceses, saying she was raped by the late Rev. Efren Neri in 1958. She holds a photo of herself at 7, the age she was victimized.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Decades after his death, the Rev. Efrén Neri is accused of leading a sordid secret life, raping a 7-year-old girl and fathering a child out of wedlock in the 1950s.

At that time of both incidents, he was assigned to Christ the King parish in Rialto, in San Bernardino County, then part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

Outside the diocesan offices Wednesday morning, “Jane Doe” accused Neri of raping her in 1958. Wearing a heavy coat, hat and sunglasses to hide her identity, the 68-year-old woman told reporters that she had spent decades beset by depression, anxiety and a deep sense of shame. After contacting the diocese last summer, she received a letter from Mary Acosta, the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator.


Acosta offered “deep sympathy,” 12 counseling sessions and information on the diocese’s Independent Compensation Program.

The lawsuits are the first of what are expected to be scores of claims against churches and other organizations for long-ago sexual abuse

Doe rejected the offer of mediation — “They can’t be trusted,” she said of the church — and last November sued the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino in San Bernardino Superior Court.

Joseph George, the Sacramento lawyer representing Doe, has spent more than 25 years representing victims of pedophile priests. This case, he insisted, is unusual. To date, Neri has not been accused of molesting other children. Doe’s alleged rape was sudden and violent, without the “grooming” period that often precedes pedophiles’ sexual assaults. And Neri allegedly had been sexually active with an adult woman.

“In 1958, he was accused of fathering a child, which he denied,” said a statement issued this week by the Diocese of San Diego. “A formal church investigation was inconclusive, but provisions were made for the child and Father Neri subsequently sought assignments in other jurisdictions.”

None of this was shared with Doe when she contacted the diocese last July. Instead, she was told — incorrectly — that Neri had been removed from the priesthood after leaving Christ the King in January 1959. In fact, after a year of sick leave, Neri continued in ministry for more than 16 years, serving parishes in Youngstown, Ohio, and Fresno. In 1976, he suffered a stroke. He died in 1982.

All of that information, George said, was readily available from church sources.

“It’s very interesting that this diocese seems to be saying they will give you money,” George said, “but we won’t give you any information about this perpetrator who raped you.”

Moreover, George questioned why the diocese has not placed Neri on its list of priests “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children.

“That’s inconceivable to me,” he said.

An analysis found more than 900 clergy members accused of child sexual abuse who were missing from lists released by the dioceses and religious orders where they served.

A diocesan spokesman said the diocese had not yet completed an internal investigation of the rape allegation. How long will that take?

“I don’t know,” said Kevin Eckery, the diocese’s vice chancellor. “We are going to look into it in good faith.”

Neri, Doe said, was a frequent guest at her family’s home in San Bernardino County. One Sunday in 1958, he joined the family for dinner, then offered to drive Doe’s older sister to her apartment across town. Doe came along for the ride.

After dropping off the sister, the priest parked in a secluded area and attacked Doe.

“I’ve felt a lot of shame, a lot of anxiety all my life,” Doe said Wednesday.

She never saw Neri again, and did not disclose the rape to her family. Years later, while seeking help for compulsive vomiting, she shared the story with a therapist.

Now the mother of two, Doe said one daughter’s plans for a church wedding prompted her to contact the Diocese of San Bernardino. There, she was told that four years of church records were inexplicably missing. The absent records covered 1958, the year of Doe’s rape.

When she shared this part of her past with San Bernardino church officials, they encouraged her to contact San Diego, noting that San Bernadino was part of that diocese until 1978.

By publicizing her story in court and in the media, Doe said, she hopes to encourage others who may have been victims of Neri or other clerics.

“You can come forward and seek healing,” she said. “It’s not too late.”

That’s especially true now. For the next three years, California law is waiving the statute of limitations applied to childhood sexual assault cases.