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11 Friars Molested Seminary Students,
Church Inquiry Says


By Seth Mydans
New York Times
December 1, 1993

[Front page and photograph are reproduced from the Ray & Anne Higgins Archive. We thank them for their assistance. BA.org is solely responsible for this web posting. See also Sex 'Vibes' Permeated Seminary, Victim Says, by Seth Mydans; and Silence Hid Evil Secret, by Victor Inzunza and Morgan Green, Santa Barbara News-Press, December 5, 1993.]

Los Angeles, Nov. 30 - An independent inquiry commissioned by the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church has determined that 11 friars at a seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., molested dozens of boys there over the course of more than 20 years.

That finding, presented at a news conference on Monday night by the Rev. Joseph P. Chinnici, a regional leader of the order, makes the Santa Barbara case one of the largest involving sexual abuse by clergy ever disclosed.

Father Chinnici offered apologies to the victims and said: "The abuses perpetrated by our own brothers on the victims and their families is truly horrific. We totally abhor what has occurred."

The yearlong inquiry was conducted by a committee of six people, only one of whom was a member of the clergy. The panel found that from 1964 until 1987, when the institution, St. Anthony's Seminary, closed for financial reasons, 11 members of its faculty engaged in sexual contact, including intercourse, with a total of at least 34 boys and probably more. [See the panel's report.]

Most of the victims were students at the seminary who were 14 to 16 years old. But a number of them were students' younger brothers, in some cases members of a choir. They were as young as 7.

Exercising their authority as priests and teachers, the offending friars, who were among a faculty of about 45 members that the seminary maintained at any given time, often summoned boys to the friars' rooms for sex, the investigators found.

The Rev. Joseph P. Chinnici, left, announcing at a news conference on Monday that 11 friars at a seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif., sexually molested dozens of students over more than 20 years. Photo by Associated Press. [The priest to the right of Chinnici is Msgr. John W. Rohde, then Episcopal Vicar of the Santa Barbara Region of the Los Angeles archdiocese.]

Father Chinnici, provincial minister of the Province of St. Barbara of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, said that in all cases, the six-year period set by California's statute of limitations on sex crimes had now expired, as had the church's own five-year period for the punishment of offending clergy.

He said extensive measures were being taken to provide counseling both to the molesters and to the 34 people whom the order has so far recognized as victims, a number that church officials acknowledged would probably rise with the passage of time.

One of the offending friars was Philip Wolfe, who was defrocked several years ago because of his sexual abuse of a boy at the seminary, was convicted of criminal charges and was sentenced to a year in jail.

Citing privacy rights, the order today would not identify any of the other offenders or their victims.

Concern Within the Church

The findings coincide with a heightened concern within the church about sexual abuse by priests and the rapidly increasing number of such cases disclosed in recent years.

Only last summer, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledged a crisis of confidence that the problem had caused in the church and announced the formation of a special national committee to deal with it. At the time, Pope John Paul II discussed the issue in a letter to the American bishops, expressing sorrow for the harm inflicted on victims and shock and demoralization on the part of the church as a whole.

Just today, in Albuquerque, N.M., a former Catholic priest met with 16 men who had accused him of molesting them as children and told them he was sorry. That apology by the former priest, John Sigler, was a provision of a legal settlement totaling $14 million that will be paid to those victims by insurance companies.

In the most prominent current instance of a sex-abuse accusation against the clergy, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, has denied molesting a student at a seminary in Cincinnati almost two decades ago and has asked for a speedy resolution of the accuser's lawsuit.

Reports Surfaced in 1989

In the case involving the Santa Barbara seminary, which was attended by more than 900 students during the 23 years when the abuse occurred, reports of it did not begin to emerge until 1989, the year that Father Wolfe was convicted and two years after the seminary closed, Father Chinnici said in an interview today.

The Rev. Virgil Cordano, the pastor of Old Mission Church in Santa Barbara, who is a spokesman for Father Chinnici, said that even after Father Wolfe's conviction, it was not immediately clear that other friars had also been involved in the abuse.

"It was the strangest thing," Father Cordano said. "Each case was isolated from the others. There were no concerted, planned assaults, as it were."

But after the extensive nature of the abuse became slowly apparent to the leaders of the order, Father Chinnici said, the independent committee of inquiry was formed late last year.

Of the 10 offending friars in addition to Father Wolfe, one has died and another has left the order, Father Cordano said. Seven of the remaining eight are now being treated as sex offenders, he said, and the other is being evaluated for treatment. All are restricted from contact with children and are not acting as ministers, he said.

The committee that undertook the investigation was led by Geoffrey Stearns, a lawyer, and also included three psychotherapists, a priest and a parent of one of the victims. Father Cordano said that a five-member permanent committee, also dominated by laymen, was being formed to handle any further accusations that might emerge and that a telephone number -- (800) 770-8013 -- had been set up to receive such reports.

Isolation and Intimidation

A detailed and graphic report issued by the investigators said the molesting friars had often summoned students or younger boys to their rooms for sex and on at least one occasion had provided alcohol.

"Perpetrators had to use their authority as priests to isolate, intimidate, confuse and manipulate these young boys in order to satisfy their own needs and insure silence," the report said.

According to the report, the former students told the panel that they had not reported the abuse because they feared that no one would believe their word over that of the friars.

The committee quoted one former student as saying, "How could God have allowed this to happen if He truly cares?"

A second student was quoted as saying, "I believe God has a twisted sense of humor, and He uses me for His amusement."

Father Chinnici said the order had already paid $90,000 for therapy for the former students but would not disclose how much might have been paid to parents to settle any civil suits.

At a meeting Monday evening with some 40 local Catholics, including victims and their parents, Father Chinnici and other clerics were criticized for not disclosing the names of the offending friars.

"If they are not identified, who's to say that some other children might not cross their paths?" said one man, who himself asked not to be identified but who said his two sons were among the victims.

"It's a terrible injustice to the good priests," the man's wife added. "It paints them all with the same brush because the predator priests are not identified."

 
 

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