Ultimate Confession of Late Pastor's Sins
Bishop to Apologize for Fremont Priest's Abuse
By Rob Dennis
The Argus [Fremont CA]
May 9, 2005
EDITOR'S NOTE: The information in this story was gathered from interviews, police reports, court records, books, newspaper articles and other documents. The names of victims and those who reported the abuse have been withheld. The Diocese of Oakland has acknowledged that the late Monsignor Vincent Breen molested children.
FREMONT — THE RUMORS SWIRLED around Holy Spirit parish for years, blasphemous, unthinkable and largely ignored.
Monsignor Vincent Ignatius Breen had a shady reputation that emerged in snatches and whispers. For much of his 29-year tenure at the church and school, the allegations faded into the ether.
Girls who complained to school officials that their pastor kissed them and fondled their breasts were told to "say no" to the priest or to tell their parents — despite state child-abuse reporting laws that required police be told.
Meanwhile, the abuse continued — in the rectory; on the schoolyard; in Breen's bedroom, where he kept a small trampoline for some of the girls to jump on while they were being fondled, according to police reports. He liked to take "modeling photographs" of the girls and invented little games where he would kiss them five times for every $5 bill they found when they were counting church money.
In an attempt to solve the problem, one administrator hit on the solution of sending younger girls to help Breen in the rectory. Every time she did, she was told to send over older girls because the younger ones "couldn't do the work."
"Don't leave your daughters around Monsignor Breen," one parishioner was told, according to police reports. "Just don't leave them alone with the monsignor."
Through the years, several complaints were made to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, resulting in at least one investigation, in 1976. That investigation was headed by another child molester, the late Monsignor George Francis of St. Bede Parish in Hayward.
The results never were made public.
Finally, though, someone called police about the monsignor, who had come to be known to some parishioners as "Misdemeanor Breen."
Police launched an investigation in late October 1981 and found that Breen molested at least eight girls, ages 7 to 14. The abuse ranged from fondling and French kissing to digital penetration.
In the end, the diocese, police and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office reached an agreement that no criminal charges would be filed if Breen retired, left the area and sought counseling.
Breen died in 1986, and the total number of victims may never be known. However, several victims' advocates estimate the priest may have molested 100 girls or more from the late 1950s until he was forced out of Holy Spirit.
"It is obvious to me that the (abuse) is something that has been occurring for several years and something that involves many girls," Fremont police Detective Gary Duthler wrote in his report on the investigation.
"It is also obvious to me that there are other victims who have not been identified and who have not come forward."
Despite evidence, Breen had powerful friends in the community, and the church, which tried to circle the wagons. Even when the pastor was forced to leave Holy Spirit in 1982 to avoid criminal charges, many members of the congregation refused to believe he molested children.
Breen's supporters claimed disgruntled members of the parish were responsible for the pastor's downfall. They blamed the victims and slammed newspapers for printing the reason for his departure.
"I know some of the accusers ... and they're not all that lily white innocent," one Holy Spirit teacher said at the time. Even now, almost a quarter-century later, the issue divides the community.
Diocese officials do "not have any doubt that this man was an abuser," according to the chancellor, Sister Barbara Flannery.
On Tuesday night, that will be confirmed by the diocese's spiritual leader when Bishop Allen Vigneron apologizes to Holy Spirit parishioners for Breen's sexual misconduct.
For the victims — one of whom is suing the diocese as part of the Clergy III priest-abuse cases — it will be a moment of vindication after more than four decades of cover-ups and accusations that they lied or somehow seduced a good man.
"The apology service will be the first time the diocese will say publicly that Vincent Ignatius Breen was a sexual predator," said Greg Bullough, a former altar boy and student at Holy Spirit who has become an advocate for Breen's victims. "It's incredible to me that it's taken this long."
'Afraid of God'
In a 1998 letter to then-Bishop John Cummins, one of Breen's now-adult victims described the after-effects of her abuse.
"He hurt me for a long time and got me very mixed up about God," she wrote. "I was very afraid of God and was scared of him. ... The priest had told me if I ever told, God would kill my family."
"I have problems being touched by people," she added. "I can't be normal because I can't get normal feelings. It was very hard for me and still is hard."
The woman went for help to Pastor Michael Chalberg, co-founder of Shepherd's Care Ministries in San Leandro, who has counseled dozens of victims of clergy abuse in the past decade, including several of Breen's victims.
Chalberg describes Breen as "a classic sociopath" living a double life.
"If you can be a master of deception and carrying on two lives, he was a master," Chalberg said.
During the criminal investigation into Breen's abuse, several parishioners came forward to defend their pastor, saying they had known him for years and never had seen him behave inappropriately. Others went further, attacking the victims and anyone who dared to repeat the allegations.
"The victims were really beaten up," Bullough said.
In a gushing 1983 biography of Breen, "Love Shall Follow," Andres L. Abejo claimed the pastor was a victim of politics and jealousy.
"That the monsignor loves children, anybody who knows him would admit," he wrote in a chapter titled "Suffer the Little Children."
"Unfortunately for the monsignor, his gestures of love were viewed with askance and suspicion by the enemies. They were watching."
Diocese officials also were less than cooperative, offering "ambiguous answers" during the early stages of the investigation, Duthler testified during a recent Clergy III lawsuit.
"The meeting proceeded to the point that I guess you would call it a threat was made that if they didn't fully cooperate with us, we would disclose to the press the investigation," he said. "And after that point, then we got cooperation."
'A booming parish'
The son of an Irish steamfitter, Breen was born in San Francisco's Potrero Hill district in 1911, the youngest of 10 children.
He studied philosophy and theology at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park. He was ordained and began his priesthood in Stockton in 1936.
Two years later, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended the Catholic University of America. One of his professors there was famed religious broadcaster Bishop Fulton Sheen. The two men developed a friendship.
After earning a doctorate in economics, Breen served as assistant superintendent of the San Francisco Catholic schools from 1942 to 1944, when he became the founding principal of Serra High School in San Mateo.
In 1953, he was made pastor of Holy Spirit Parish.
Centerville, at the time, was a tiny hamlet in the not-yet-incorporated city of Fremont, but it would not remain so for long.
As the orchards yielded to development and families poured into the tract homes, Breen spearheaded the construction of a school and gymnasium at Holy Spirit, and the expansion of the church.
"Breen obviously did a lot of good in the community," Chalberg said. "He's still beloved by many in the community."
To maintain his double life, Breen targeted the kids of poorer members of the community while wining and dining community leaders, Chalberg, Bullough and others said.
He also had many high-level friends in the church, both inside and outside the diocese, including the late Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, a close personal friend of the late Pope John Paul II. Many said the police investigation is all that stopped him from being a bishop.
Bullough, who attended Holy Spirit School from 1970 to 1973, initially looked on Breen as a mentor, even taking "Vincent" as his confirmation name. But he also heard the rumors. Then in the early 1970s, a group of kids cleaning out Breen's room unearthed a cach of pornography.
"I was acutely aware that something was definitely amiss about this guy," he said.
Breen was so popular, though, that even the parents of abuse victims often refused to believe it. When one girl described Breen's abuse to her mother, she washed her mouth out with soap, locked her in the closet and wouldn't let her out until she "stopped lying."
"I want that person to read this," Bullough said. "And if it comes down to it, show it to her parents and say, 'Look. See? I was telling the truth.'"
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