A decade after settling sex abuse cases, the Diocese of San Diego still copes with the fallout

Heidi Lynch holds dog tags with a photo of herself when she was 8 years old with the inscription “remember me” on the back. She is one of the sexual abuse victims of a priest in the San Diego Diocese.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune/Zuma Press)

Whenever Heidi Lynch thinks about priests molesting children, she shudders with memories of her own abuse and worries whether the Catholic Church is doing all it can to protect potential victims.

“Are they really taking care of the children?” asked Lynch, a 60-year-old San Carlos resident, who between the ages of 8 and 11 was repeatedly raped by a priest. “Are they really taking care of the abusers? Are they still hiding this?”

Ten years ago this week, the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego agreed to pay $198.1 million to settle the lawsuits filed by Lynch and 143 other adults. As children, each had been sexually assaulted by a priest or, in one case, a layman supervising altar boys.


This was a landmark moment in one of the largest scandals in the church’s 2,000-year-old history. From Dublin to Manila, Boston to Portland, Ore., Catholic officials were hauled into court and forced to account for shielding predatory clerics, often for decades.

The San Diego settlement was the nation’s second largest, trailing only the Los Angeles diocese’s $660 million.

Absorbing these damages led the San Diego diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the end, insurance paid $76 million and the Diocese of San Bernardino, which had part of this diocese, contributed almost $15 million.

Selling properties and tapping its bank accounts, San Diego paid the remaining $107 million. Seven months after going to bankruptcy court, the diocese’s case was dismissed.

The scandal “was a grave wrong and sin on the part of the church,” Bishop Robert McElroy said.

Since assuming leadership of the diocese in 2015, McElroy has enacted reforms to reduce the chances of clergy preying on children. Every employee, from vicars to janitors to visiting clerics, undergo background checks. Catholic school pupils and their parents are taught to recognize inappropriate behavior and warning signs of predators.


Still, the bishop warns the problem hasn’t vanished.

“It will never go away, it is part of human nature — sadly,” he said. “We have to maintain vigilance … we can’t become complacent.”

If the diocese is determined to remember, some victims struggle to forget.

Asked how her life has changed in the last decade, Lynch opens a shoe box she keeps on the kitchen table in her ranch-style San Carlos house. The box is packed with prescription drugs to treat ulcers, colitis, anxiety, insomnia, depression.

“When this happens to you as a child,” she said, “you think you must be the most horrible person in the world.”

Like many Catholic children enrolled in public school, Heidi attended weekly catechism classes at her local parish, St. Rita’s. While learning church teachings and preparing to receive the sacraments, she descended into a nightmare.

At age 8, Heidi and her classmates first received the sacrament of reconciliation. Also known as confession, this became a regular part of the children’s routine. As students queued outside the confessional, Heidi was directed to the end of the line.

“I was always the last,” Lynch said. “Once, we had a new nun and she started wondering why I was always the last one. She asked questions -- and then she disappeared.”

Heidi was always last because the priest would usher her into his part of the confessional booth, close the door and sexually assault her.

After the scandal erupted, the diocese made some personnel changes. The victims assistance coordinator, Msgr. Steve Callahan, was replaced by a lay person, Lisa Petronis, a licensed clinical psychologist.

And the Diocesan Review Board — a panel that reviews allegations of child sexual abuse by church employees — received a new member: an adult survivor of this crime.

“We thought that was an important perspective to have,” McElroy said.

Today, the bishop said, every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor is referred to either the police or child protective services. “It depends on whether the minor is still at risk,” he said.

At the same time, allegations are forwarded to a private investigator who has a contract with the diocese. This investigator’s report goes to the authorities and the aforementioned Diocesan Review Board.

“We act as the finder of fact for the diocese,” said Chris Hulburt, a career defense lawyer who chairs the board.

Meeting quarterly, the board includes a prosecutor of sex crimes; a retired judge; a marriage and family therapist; a school nurse; a pastor; and the sexual abuse survivor. McElroy is present when the board hears evidence, including the investigator’s report. Then he leaves the chamber so the board can discuss whether an instance of abuse occurred and, if so, what should be done.

The latter is a recommendation. It’s McElroy’s decision whether to take any action.

“We are an advisory group,” Hulburt said.

In Hulburt’s five years on the board, he’s heard five allegations of new cases and another five that allegedly occurred decades ago. None of the former led to the removal of a priest. One allegation was retracted. Another involved a priest from the Los Angeles diocese. A third stemmed from a priest’s questionable communications, but no physical contact, with a minor.

The five older allegations, all leveled against priests who are now dead, were judged more serious. In several cases, the board recommended the diocese pay for the victim’s counseling. At least once, the board recommended — and the bishop approved — payment to a victim.

While board members include several legal professionals, this is not a legal proceeding. In fact, the board may deliberate while the legal system — including the church’s lawyers — come to grips with civil or criminal cases prompted by the allegation.

“We’re not involved in the church’s legal strategy at all,” Hulburt said. “We are concerned about people — concerned about the people that may have been harmed and the people that are being accused.”

Ideally, Hulburt said, these private hearings can heal wounds. That’s not what happened during the negotiations that led to the massive 2007 settlement. Victims and family members are bruised from the adversarial experience, saying the diocese stonewalled, destroyed documents, hid assets and acted in bad faith.

The settlement, large as it was, has done little to heal this rift for victims such as Heidi Lynch.