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  Victims Weren't First Priority

By Andrew Galvin
The Orange County Register [California]
May 29, 2005

Michael Patrick Driscoll didn't go into the priesthood to become a personnel manager. He didn't expect that his career path would include supervising some of the worst priest-pedophiles in Orange County's history.

But in the early years of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, that was his job. From 1976 to 1987, as the diocese's chancellor, Driscoll oversaw personnel matters involving priests. Personnel files released by the diocese over the past two weeks show that Driscoll participated in numerous decisions that gave accused priests the opportunity to remain in ministry.

Driscoll, who today is the bishop of the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, has repeatedly apologized for his role in those decisions. Most recently, on May 5, he admitted that his priorities were "horribly misplaced" when he dealt with allegations of abuse in the 1970s and 1980s.

"It is hard for me to understand today how we could not have seen what was happening to the children," Driscoll wrote in a statement posted on the Boise diocese's Web site. "People who know me well know how much I love children. They know that I would never hurt anyone intentionally, especially children."

People who know Driscoll say he is a warm, generous man, an exceptional speaker devoted to his religious calling. During his years in Orange County, he was a champion of the poor. Every Christmas, the rotund Driscoll donned a Santa Claus suit to distribute gifts to disadvantaged children.

Yet the personnel files show a man who could be slow to respond to complaints from parents and teachers about priests' behavior. Driscoll has admitted that his "focus at that time was to provide help to priests so they could continue in their vocations."

John Manly, an attorney who represents victims of sexual abuse by Orange County priests, served in the 1970s as an altar boy under then-Rev. Driscoll at St. Catherine's Military School in Anaheim.

"I served Mass for him probably over 50 times," Manly recalled. "He was always friendly, always polite, always appropriate, always likable."

But today, Manly says Driscoll should resign over his failure to protect Orange County children from the "emotional death sentence" of sexual abuse.

"At some point, (Driscoll) made a choice," Manly said. "He picked advancement and protection of the institution over the protection of kids. ... Bishop Driscoll should spend the rest of his life in a monastery seeking Christ's forgiveness."

Driscoll declined to be interviewed for this article, but a picture of the man emerges from diocesan files, court papers, past news stories and interviews with people who have known him. Driscoll, a man almost universally liked, did what he thought was right at the time for his church and its priests. In so doing, he made decisions that led to children being hurt - decisions that today even he can't quite explain.

AFFABLE, EASYGOING

Driscoll, who was born in 1939, attended Catholic school in Compton. As a boy, he wanted nothing more than to become a parish priest.

In a May 2004 Associated Press article, Driscoll said he spent hours as a youth playing church.

"He made his own vestments, dreamt up his own homilies and pretended to consecrate the Necco candy wafers he gave as Communion to his younger siblings," the AP article said.

He was attracted to the deep connections that priests had with parishioners' lives, the AP article said.

"I knew they married people and buried people, and I wanted to be involved with people, too," he told the AP.

Driscoll had all the tools to be a popular priest: a great smile, an affable, easygoing manner and a sharp intellect. He attended St. John's seminary in Camarillo and was ordained a priest by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre on May 1, 1965.

The Rev. Raymond Hoppe of Lakeview, Ore., attended seminary with Driscoll and remains a friend.

"He's one of the kindest men I know," Hoppe said. "He's a man who loves the priesthood, loves people and would do anything he could for anybody."

Driscoll's first assignments as a priest, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, were to serve as associate pastor at parishes in Los Angeles and Burbank. In 1973, the archdiocese sent him to USC to get a master's degree in social work.

One Catholic who met Driscoll in the early 1970s likened him to a breath of fresh air in the church. James Schmiesing of Irvine, then in his 30s, had returned to the church after an absence of more than a decade.

Schmiesing encountered Driscoll at a plumbing shop in Los Angeles where four or five men gathered to participate in a Catholic renewal movement. Having been out of the church since before the Vatican II reforms, Schmiesing was struck by Driscoll's openness.

"To hear a priest sit down and talk about struggles, trying to pray, for example; I loved it," Schmiesing said. "He was very different from the priests I knew growing up ... . Mike Driscoll was a person it was heartening to come back to."

DIOCESE FORMED

In June 1976, a brand-new diocese was carved out of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Driscoll was appointed to assist Bishop William Johnson in administering the new Diocese of Orange, which had more than 40 parishes.

Within six months of the diocese's formation, Driscoll was confronted with a decision about the Rev. Siegfried Widera.

Widera, a priest from Wisconsin, had been convicted there in 1973 of molesting a boy.

In a letter dated Dec. 20, 1976, Archbishop William Cousins of Milwaukee asked Driscoll to find a place for Widera in the Diocese of Orange. Cousins' letter didn't mention Widera's conviction, but did refer to "a moral problem having to do with a boy in school." Although Widera had obtained psychiatric treatment, the letter said, "there has been a repetition."

Widera, who was staying with his brother in Costa Mesa, arranged to meet Driscoll for an interview on Jan. 10, 1977. That same day, personnel records show, Driscoll appointed Widera as associate pastor at St. Pius V parish in Buena Park.

Over the next eight years, Widera went on to molest at least 10 boys in Orange County, according to suits the Diocese of Orange has settled. Widera's accusers received a total of $17.7 million from the diocese.

In 2002, Driscoll answered questions about Widera under oath in a deposition conducted by Kathy Freberg, an Irvine lawyer for plaintiffs alleging priest abuse. Driscoll said Bishop Johnson decided to accept Widera based on an assurance from Cousins that Widera wouldn't be a problem.

Driscoll admitted in the deposition that he never checked to make sure Widera continued treatment, nor did he warn parishioners at the churches where Widera served.

"I don't want to sound like I'm some kind of a monster, but ... we perhaps never should have taken (Widera) in 1976," Driscoll said, according to a transcript . "But in 1976, the whole issue on treatment and priests being able to be treated ... . It was felt there were ways in which you could save the priest as well as deal with the issue.

"Now, it's wrong and I recognize that today. And I'm sorry about that today. But ... you know, I can't justify my actions. So I'm not going to."

Widera was the first of at least five suspected molesters whom Driscoll helped to remain in ministry. Others were the Rev. Eleuterio "Al" Ramos, the Rev. John Kenney, the Rev. Andrew Christian Andersen and the Rev. Franklin Buckman, according to personnel records.

Driscoll wasn't the only one who tried to see the best in Widera. Records show that Widera was popular with parishioners and fellow priests in Orange County.

In April 1977, after Widera had been at St. Pius V for just a few months, he was transferred to a parish in Anaheim. The move prompted more than a dozen letters from St. Pius V parishioners asking Bishop Johnson to reconsider.

"Our parish deserves the talents and many gifts of this beautiful man - our young people are touched by his joy," wrote one parishioner, whose name was redacted in the released files.

BENEFIT OF DOUBT

In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was thought that pedophiles could be treated and cured, said Nicholas Cafardi, dean of the law school at Duquesne University, a Catholic college in Pittsburgh.

Priests who molested children were often given the benefit of the doubt by church leaders who viewed their crimes "as a sin that could be forgiven," Cafardi said. "I think (bishops) were acting without full knowledge of the problem in a clerical culture that favored the priest."

Cafardi said it wasn't uncommon for bishops to delegate handling of abuse claims to a subordinate, as Johnson largely did with Driscoll.

In his 2002 deposition, Driscoll said he didn't learn until 1992 or 1993 that pedophiles couldn't be cured and returned to parish work.

After Johnson died in July 1986, Bishop Norman McFarland took over the Diocese of Orange. McFarland in 1987 moved Driscoll into a new role overseeing the church's properties and construction.

"Bishop McFarland had me do nothing with priest personnel. And I was very grateful for that," Driscoll said in his 2002 deposition.

However, the files show that Driscoll consulted on some decisions regarding suspect priests well into the 1990s, even as day-to-day oversight of the abuse problem was handed to Msgr. John Urell.

Driscoll in 1990 was promoted to auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange. In 1999, he was appointed Bishop of Boise, overseeing Idaho's 140,000 Catholics.

Since moving to Idaho, Driscoll, like bishops elsewhere, has spoken publicly about the abuse problem and instituted programs aimed at preventing it, including background checks for church employees.

"For any priest to misuse his power and take advantage of this sacred relationship in order to hurt another is despicable,' Driscoll said in a 2002 Easter message.

In February 2004, Driscoll reported that there were 21 credible allegations of child abuse made against 12 Catholic priests in Idaho between 1950 and 2002. None of the dozen priests remained in ministry, he said, according to an AP article.

Still, as recently as two years ago, one priest was transferred between the Boise and Orange dioceses after an allegation of sexual misconduct arose.

In 2003, the Rev. Dominic Nguyen was sent to Orange County after a repairman allegedly found child pornography on his computer at St. Edward the Confessor Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Nguyen had been sent to Idaho in 2000 after he had a sexual relationship with a woman while he was a parish priest at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove. Upon his return to Orange County, Nguyen was suspended from ministry. Idaho authorities determined there was not sufficient evidence of a criminal act, according to the Diocese of Orange Web site.

Today, even with the revelations contained in the released personnel files, Driscoll is well-regarded by Catholics in Idaho, said Max and Idamarie Harrington, a married couple who live near Coeur d'Alene.

"He is coming across ... as a very sincere person," said Max Harrington. "He has quite a bit of remorse for the things that he was directed to do in the 1970s."

Idamarie Harrington scoffed upon being told that lawyers in California have called for Driscoll to resign.

"I don't think that's a good idea unless they want to come up here and fill his shoes, and I don't think they could," she said. "Faith is a gift."

 
 

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