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  Bishop: We Missed Signs of Sex Abuse
Diocese of Oakland Officials Take the Stand in Molestation Trial

By Josh Richman
Alameda Times-Star [Hayward CA]
April 5, 2005

HAYWARD Diocese of Oakland officials testified Monday that the church showed errors in judgment in handling a child-molesting priest.

Bishop Emeritus John Cummins, who led Alameda and Contra Costa counties' Roman Catholics from 1977 to 2003, acknowledged documents show his predecessor knew of allegations against Father Robert Ponciroli in 1975, yet Cummins didn't learn of it until almost two decades later.

"I did not expect sexual abuse by priests to be a frequent occurrence," he testified, but he knows now that seven or eight priests abused children in his diocese during his tenure.

Earlier Monday, former diocese chancellor Father Brian Joyce testified that although he was chairman of the diocese's clergy personnel committee from 1971 to 1979, he knew of no sexual complaints against Ponciroli only complaints of tickling and losing his temper with altar boys. He said he confronted Ponciroli on those matters, but "in no way" suspected molestation.

"My focus was his anger and his intimidating young people," he said. "I was wrong."

Attorney Rick Simons displayed a May 1975 memo fromthen-Bishop Floyd Begin indicating Begin knew of sexual-abuse claims against Ponciroli during his time at Richmond's St. Cornelius parish. Joyce testified he doesn't know why Begin, who died in 1977, never mentioned this to him.

"It was routine that he (Begin) would deal with some cases himself," Joyce said. "I think it's unfortunate that that was the practice."

Both Joyce and Cummins testified they never looked in Ponciroli's personnel file to see Begin's 1975 memo either when Ponciroli was moved to Castro Valley's Our Lady of Grace later in 1975, or when he was moved to Antioch's St. Ignatius in 1979.

"I don't think I had any suspicions and therefore didn't ask," Cummins said of the latter move, adding he has "no idea" why the information wasn't volunteered to him by others in the diocese.

Ponciroli at St. Ignatius molested Tom and Bob Thatcher, altar boys then 8 and 10; the Thatchers have sued the diocese claiming it should have protected them from the pedophile priest. Poniciroli who was defrocked years ago, avoided criminal prosecution under a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and now lives in Florida isn't a party to the suit.

Nobody disputes the abuse, only the amount and kind of monetary damages the Thatchers deserve. The diocese agrees they deserve reasonable compensatory damages, but the brothers want more than the diocese is willing pay, and Bob Thatcher seeks punitive damages as well.

This is the first of dozens of lawsuits against the Oakland diocese to come to trial, even as negotiations on a mass settlement continue elsewhere. A San Francisco man recently won $437,000 in his lawsuit against the Archdiocese of San Francisco for failing to protect him from Father Joseph Pritchard's molestation in the early 1970s; 75 more cases are pending against the Archdiocese.

Simons on Monday showed Cummins a 1996 pact he'd signed requiring Ponciroli to continue attending treatment for his "psychosexual, physical, interpersonal and spiritual health," plus weekly psychotherapy and Sexaholics Anonymous meetings. But that agreement didn't last long, Cummins said: "It seems to me he moved to Florida close to this time, and we lost supervision over him."

Also testifying Monday was Bishop Allen Vigneron, who inherited this matter when arriving from Detroit to take his post in 2003. "I've tried to do my duty" in eradicating sexual abuse, he said, praising the current chancellor, Sister Barbara Flannery, for her work with and for abuse survivors.

Outside the courtroom Monday, Cummins echoed Vigneron's praise of Flannery and said that although the abuse is clear in hindsight, it wasn't clear at the time.

"We just didn't get the signals," he said. "We couldn't put it together."

 
 

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