Column: California needs to take another look at its Catholic Church sexual abuse cases
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has gained a reputation for going after anyone or anything that he feels threatens our Golden State. He’s filed 35 lawsuits just against the Trump administration. He’s prosecuted landlords who gouged renters after the devastating Tubbs fire last year. He has stood with “Dreamers” and against gun manufacturers.
So far, however, Becerra’s office has stayed mum on one of California’s biggest criminal outrages: sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
This decades-long scandal flared up again last month with the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report. It detailed how 300 priests molested at least 1,000 children and groomed them for abuse over the last 70 years. But the equally horrific crime, Pennsylvania Atty. Gen. Josh Shapiro correctly argued, was that church hierarchy and law enforcement officials largely ignored victims and let offenders continue their depravities.
That was the case in California, too. Many of the still-alive monsignors, bishops and cardinals involved in California’s part of the pedophile priest problem have never faced appropriate consequences for their inaction. In New Jersey and New York, the attorneys general have launched new investigations. Becerra should do the same here.
I’ve covered the scandal in the Diocese of Orange since 2003, and even then it was evident to me that this wasn’t just a problem of a few bad padres.
The cover-up involved political players. In 1981, a Benicia police officer found Jerome Henson, a Dominican priest, with a 13-year-old boy’s legs around his shoulders late at night. Officials with the Diocese of Sacramento transferred Henson within days to the Diocese of Reno, then to the Orange diocese. There, Henson worked under Tom Fuentes in the communications office, where the two helped to keep parishioners unaware of the predators within their pews. Fuentes went on to become the architect of the modern-day Republican Party in Orange County.
Many of the still-alive monsignors, bishops and cardinals involved in California’s part of the pedophile priest problem have never faced prosecution.
The cover-up involved police. In 1984, Oliver O’Grady, an Irish priest working in Stockton, admitted to local detectives that he had molested children. But when lieutenants of Roger Mahony, who was then bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, promised to put O’Grady into therapy and keep him away from children, the detectives halted their investigation. O’Grady went on to assault dozens of children across the Central Valley before he was finally convicted in 1993. By then, Mahony was a cardinal for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where he presided over more pedophile priests.
The cover-up involved district attorneys. In 1975, church officials in Orange County told prosecutors that Eleuterio Ramos had molested a boy; the district attorney’s office suggested psychological care instead of prison. Ramos became the most prolific pedophile priest in Orange County history, admitting to a victim last decade that he assaulted at least 25 boys.
Our sainted Sen. Kamala Harris, who trumpets her prosecution of Backpage.com as evidence that she’s tough on sex crimes, is also among those tarred in my mind. In 2005, while she was San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris rebuffed a public-records request by SF Weekly to release personnel files from the Archdiocese of San Francisco. (Her predecessor had planned to make them public after prosecuting criminal priests, but the California Supreme Court stopped those cases when it declared unconstitutional a 2002 law that lifted the criminal statute of limitations.) Similar archives in Boston had exposed the scope of the scandal there. “We’re not interested in selling out our victims to look good in the paper,” Harris told SF Weekly in a statement — this, even though many of those victims pleaded with her to release the documents.
And she never prosecuted any pedophile priest.
Even Gov. Jerry Brown sinned. He twice vetoed bills that would have extended the statute of limitations for victims to bring civil lawsuits against the church leaders who protected abusive priests.
“There comes a time,” Brown wrote in 2013, “when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits.”
So who feels secure as a result? People like Mahony live in easy retirement. Rev. Msgr. John Urell, a clergy sex abuse investigator in the Orange diocese as priests were shuffled around and paid to leave the priesthood, sits comfy as pastor of St. Timothy Church in Laguna Niguel.
The Catholic Church has always played an outsized, romanticized role in California, from the mission system to powerhouse parochial sports programs. The public deserves to know which church leaders did nothing as its priests raped kids and who in law enforcement and beyond enabled the abuse to go unchecked.
I can hear the naysayers already: Where’s the news? Why should Becerra go on a fishing expedition into decades-old cases for which the Orange, San Diego, and Los Angeles dioceses paid out over $1 billion in the last 15 years alone?
“That’s a big misconception that most of the [cover-up] stuff is already out there,” counters Joelle Casteix, an expert on institutional child sex abuse who was molested by a choir teacher at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana during the 1980s. “Most of what we learned about clergy sex abuse and cover-up in Pennsylvania concerned victims whose statutes had expired. I bet it will be the same in California.”
Casteix and other survivors are now calling on the Catholic Becerra to investigate California’s 12 Catholic dioceses. His office put out a statement neither confirming nor denying that it is investigating. That’s not good enough. The church hierarchy inflicted horrendous pain on children for decades — and it’s time that the princes of the church face justice.
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