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  Priests: Diocese Knew of Parishioner Abuse

By Matt O'Brien
Tri-Valley Herald [Hayward CA]
March 30, 2005

HAYWARD - A priest testifying in the first-ever civil clergy abuse trial against the Catholic Diocese of Oakland said Tuesday the diocese knew local priests were abusing young parishioners, but declined to call the police.

Another priest said he was moved to other parishes when allegations of sexual misconduct arose.

The testimony came in the second day of a civil trial in which two former Antioch altar boys are accusing the diocese of failing to protect them from a pedophile priest, the Rev. Robert Ponciroli.

Rev. George Crespin, the diocese's former personnel director, admitted in a deposition videotape relayed to jurors that "it wasn't our practice" to contact police about sexual abuse allegations.

Priest moved

The other priest, the Rev. Robert Freitas, himself an accused child molester, testified that church leaders moved him to another church even after he admitted to molesting a boy in the mid-1970s.

The diocese, which encompasses Alameda and Contra Costa counties, acknowledges that Ponciroli abused brothers Tom and Bob Thatcher.

But the amount of money the church will award the victims depends in large part on whether the jury decides diocesan actions constituted neglect, or the more serious charge of "knowing disregard."

Freitas, who served the diocese for more than 30 years at parishes in Fremont, Hayward, San Leandro, and elsewhere, was one of the first witnesses to testify on Tuesday at the Hayward Hall of Justice during the second day of the trial.

The priest spoke calmly, answering a series of questions about his record of sex abuse from the Thatchers' attorney, Rick Simons.

His comments, like much of the testimony from various witnesses on Tuesday, had nothing to do specifically with Ponciroli and the abuse of the Thatcher boys. Simons has said he is seeking to show a general pattern of "knowing disregard" in the church's handling of pedophile priests.

Freitas stopped working for the diocese in 2002 amid a criminal investigation, but formally remains a priest - only the Vatican has authority to defrock him. He is also free from future prosecution because of the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases in California.

Admitting to involvement

Freitas said he was serving at a church in San Leandro in the 1970s when a pastor first confronted him about sex abuse allegations.

Freitas testified that he admitted to his involvement in the abuse, was told to go to a spiritual advisor, then returned to abusing boys when he was assigned to a Fremont church from the late 1970s until 1983.

Only then, after new allegations arose, did the diocese send him to a Massachusetts treatment center for priests, the House of Affirmation, Freitas testified. He said it was his belief that if he went to the House of Affirmation earlier, he would have stopped abusing children earlier.

"I wanted to go get help," Freitas said.

He also said that when he returned to the Oakland Diocese from Massachusetts, church leaders gave him new ministry work and did not forbid him from being near children.

"There was nothing in writing that said one way or another," Freitas said. "I don't remember being told not to (be alone with children)."

Jurors also heard testimony on Tuesday from Crespin, an elderly priest who served as the diocesan chancellor until 1987.

Crespin did not appear in person to testify - lawyers say he broke his foot and could not make it to the courthouse. But lawyers on both sides of the case used videotaped excerpts of a deposition taken in January and read from two other depositions taken last fall.

Crespin, at one point during the deposition asked if the diocese responded to abuse allegations by contacting law enforcement, said:

"It wasn't our practice. That's not what we do."

He was questioned about how he handled several alleged East Bay clergy abuse cases he dealt with over a period of more than ten years, including those involving Monsignor Vincent Breene, the Rev. Gary Tollner, the Rev. Stephen Kiesle, the Rev. George Francis, and others.

In talking about a case in which the Fremont Police Department was investigating Breene for molesting juvenile girls, Crespin said the relationship he had with some police agencies was that the diocese should handle its own investigation.

"The police were saying (they) would not pursue this investigation any further if we removed (Breen) from the county," Crespin said.

He said that that upon his 1987 retirement as chancellor, he offered to give his successor, the Rev. Frank Houdek, a number of personnel files, but the new chancellor declined.

"(Houdek) said he wanted to start with a clean slate," Crespin said.

Along with hearing from Freitas and Crespin, jurors on Tuesday heard from two mothers, one from Antioch and one from Castro Valley, who reported their concerns about Ponciroli to church leaders.

They heard from another Ponciroli accuser, Troy Ward, now a member of the U.S. Air Force, who said he was 12 years old when Ponciroli took him into a bedroom in Antioch and tickled the shirtless boy.

And they heard, through trancripts only, from the Thatchers' father, Steve Thatcher, a former Antioch city manager, who said he found Ponciroli to be gruff and rude but didn't know his children were being abused. The father did not appear in person because he has a medical disability and lives in Southern California.

 
 

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