Lay Group Criticizes Bishop's Response
Letter questions delay in reporting alleged abuse, cites clerical structure 'deeply entrenched in secrecy'

By Guy Kovner
Press Democrat
July 4, 2006

A growing number of Catholic laypersons are expressing dismay over Bishop Daniel Walsh's handling of child sex abuse allegations against a Sonoma priest believed to have fled to Mexico.

Fifty-five people, some of them members of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, have signed a letter citing the case of the Rev. Xavier Ochoa as evidence "the sexual abuse crisis is still very much with our church."

Saying it will take years of "resolute vigilance and compassion" to heal the wounds of the scandal that erupted in the North Coast diocese in 1994, the letter added:

"But it also requires a commitment to reform a clerical structure so deeply entrenched in secrecy and denial that a bishop could justify in his own mind protecting a predator instead of a child."

Walsh, who took over the scandal-plagued diocese in 2000, has consistently refused to publicly discuss abuse cases involving local priests and children and that was the case again Monday. The bishop was headed for a monthlong vacation and unavailable for comment, said a spokeswoman. He had, however, received a copy of the Voice of the Faithful letter, she said.

In their letter, the laypersons said they were not reassured by Walsh's explanation in a written message distributed at churches the weekend of June 24-25.

"One is left with the impression there was no sense of urgency," the letter said.

Claudine Sweeters, who knew Ochoa at St. Francis Solano Church, said Monday she was "stymied why he (Walsh) called his lawyer and not the police."

"I thought CEOs of major corporations consulted professional help when in difficult situations," she said.

According to Walsh's own chronology, he was first advised of a "sensitive matter" involving Ochoa on April 27, then heard Ochoa admit three incidents of misconduct April 28, at a meeting also attended by two other priests.

Ochoa's admissions were reported to authorities by diocese attorney Dan Galvin three days later, May 1, and Sonoma County sheriff's detectives launched an investigation two days after that.

By the time detectives began looking for Ochoa on May 4, the priest had placed his possessions in storage and left town. Investigators believe he is in Mexico, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.

State law requires priests to immediately report any suspected case of child abuse.

Cindy Vrooman of Sonoma, who wrote the Voice of the Faithful letter, said more laypersons should have been involved in the bishop's handling of the Ochoa matter.

"The priests met with the priests," said Vrooman, a lifelong Catholic and a former nun. Had laypersons attended the April 28 meeting with Ochoa, "they wouldn't have protected him," Vrooman said.

In their letter to Walsh, the laypersons noted that Walsh immediately removed Ochoa from clerical duties, but they questioned, "How does that protect the community and possibly the victim or the victim's family?"

"The most obvious question is why wasn't Father Ochoa at least supervised after the meeting?" the letter said.

Many of the Catholics who signed the letter are from St. Leo the Great Parish in Boyes Hot Springs, adjacent to St. Francis Solano Parish where Ochoa had most recently served as assistant pastor. Vrooman said she is continuing to collect signatures on the letter.

The bishop's spokeswoman, Deirdre Frontczak, said that prior to the April 28 meeting no one knew the specifics of Ochoa's alleged misconduct. She could not say what the specific "sensitive" information was that prompted the meeting.

The diocese's victims assistance coordinator was not involved because there was no victim at the meeting, she said.

Ochoa, 69, has been charged with 10 counts of felony child sex abuse and one misdemeanor alleging lewd conduct with three victims. If convicted of offenses involving two or more victims, he could face a life sentence in prison.

The laypersons' letter said that some of them had attended child sex abuse prevention workshops offered by the diocese. In the workshops it was made "clear to us that if we suspected child abuse we were to report it to the legal authorities immediately, and that is especially true if it was an admission of guilt," the letter said.

Frontczak said the diocese's policies on dealing with child sex abuse allegations were intended to handle reports by victims. Ochoa's case was "an anomaly," she said, because it was a priest allegedly admitting his own transgressions.

All priests and church employees, including Walsh, received training in child sex abuse prevention in 2003, Frontczak said.

She said she did not know exactly what aspects of reporting suspected abuse were covered in the training.

The training is scheduled to be repeated in the fall, she said.


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