Letters Indicate Troubling Ochoa Behavior
Past Correspondence between SR Diocese, Alleged Victim's Family Suggests Harassment
By Martin Espinoza
The Press Democrat [Santa Rosa CA]
July 9, 2006
Internal letters from the Santa Rosa Diocese suggest that Bishop Daniel Walsh and other local Catholic leaders knew the Rev. Xavier Ochoa had developed an inappropriate relationship with the family of one of his alleged sex abuse victims years before Ochoa's admission to sexual impropriety.
The correspondence paints a picture of a desperate mother begging the diocese to keep Ochoa away from her family because of continual harassment and intrusion.
The letters make no mention of sexual abuse. But the half-dozen letters chronicle a relationship that sex abuse experts say was manipulative and should have alerted church officials to investigate the actions of Ochoa.
Ochoa, who was an assistant pastor at St. Francis Solano parish in Sonoma, has been charged with molesting three boys and is believed to have fled to Mexico.
An attorney for the church Friday confirmed that the letters were part of Ochoa's personnel file and were reviewed in connection with Ochoa's admission of sex abuse. But he would not speculate on whether the letters, which date from as far back as 2001, should have alerted church officials to the potential for sexual misconduct.
"The letters that I've seen have no allegations of sexual misconduct and relate to some financial issues between Father Ochoa and the family," said Dan Galvin, attorney for the Santa Rosa Diocese.
"The family requested that Father Ochoa stay away from them and Bishop Walsh asked him to stay away," Galvin said.
Walsh first became aware of trouble between the family and Ochoa in 2001, following a car accident that involved Ochoa and an underage boy from the family. According to court records, Ochoa had been drinking and made the boy, who was unlicensed, drive.
Ochoa subsequently arranged for the boy to pay part of the damages, according to a November 2001 letter from Walsh to the mother. In the letter, Walsh said Ochoa had admitted to mistakes "in allowing your son to drive his car, in not telling you about this, and in asking the young man to pay for the damages."
Contact between the family and Ochoa continued.
In a May 2004 letter to Ochoa from the Rev. Daniel Whelton, judicial vicar of the diocese, Whelton explained that the mother had come to him complaining that "you have done too much damage to their family, emotionally and economically."
The parents of the alleged victims refused to be interviewed at the direction of their attorney.
It is not known if any discipline or further investigation of Ochoa was done following the letter in May 2004.
In a December 2005 letter to Walsh from the Rev. Frank Epperson, who worked at St. Francis Solano Church, Epperson told Walsh that the mother complained Ochoa had placed financial burdens on her family.
"Knowing that they have no money, Fr. Xavier opened charge accounts in his own name and encourage (sic) her son to purchase as he pleases," wrote Epperson, adding that this had resulted "in bills they cannot pay."
The Press Democrat reviewed copies of the letters. Phone inquiries about the letters to both Epperson and Whelton were not returned Friday.
Michael Fiumara, an attorney representing the families of the three alleged victims, said Ochoa's behavior should have sounded alarms at the diocese.
"He tied himself economically and socially with the family in such a way that he was able to manipulate them and perpetrate his sexual molestation," said Fiumara. "There should have been a swift and thorough investigation, especially knowing that the diocese has a history of sexual impropriety."
Walsh, who has consistently refused to answer questions about abuse by the clergy, could not be reached Friday. His assistant, Pam Hawkins, said he was away on vacation.
"I cannot have anybody bothering him when he's on vacation," she said.
The sex abuse allegations against Ochoa came to light May 22 when Walsh issued a statement saying Ochoa had come to him voluntarily April 28 and informed him of an incidence of sexual misconduct. Walsh said he'd relieved Ochoa of his duties.
Walsh and other church leaders have been criticized for failing to report Ochoa to authorities until May 1, three days after his admission of sexual misconduct. By the time law enforcement authorities began looking for Ochoa on May 4, the priest was gone, suspected of fleeing to Mexico.
The letters raise new questions from critics of the church and others: Should years of complaint and questionable activities by a clergyman warrant greater investigation from a diocese rocked by financial and sex abuse scandals involving 16 priests and 59 children?
Ned Rodriguez, a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California who specializes in child sexual abuse, said Ochoa's behavior with the family "would fit in the classic profile of a pedophile. He's going for the child's financial vulnerability to bind the child to him."
"It would certainly give me, if I were the bishop, cause for pause. I would follow up and investigate," said Rodriguez. "In this age of heightened awareness of clergy sexual abuse, of course that should have raised some suspicion. Certainly it's crossing boundaries. How many priests do that?"
James Jenkins, a Bay Area clinical psychologist, agreed. Jenkins, who was chairman of the San Francisco Archdiocese's independent review board, said such behavior is "totally outside any kind of concept of what priestly ministry should be about."
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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