|Activists Assail Bishop for Handling of Clergy Misconduct
By Jane Gargas
April 13, 2007
A national organization that monitors clergy abuse strongly criticized the Catholic Diocese of Yakima, asking Bishop Carlos Sevilla in a Thursday letter to apologize publicly for his handling of two cases of alleged misconduct by clergy.
Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, faxed the letter to the bishop, calling for a diocesan investigation and for more outreach to find victims of abuse.
"We are writing to you, Bishop Sevilla, because there is compelling evidence that the Diocese of Yakima is continuing a long and disturbing pattern of protecting errant clergy and failing to protect children and youth," the letter stated.
This is the first time that the group, headquartered in Chicago, has initiated criticism of the Yakima Diocese.
The first case concerns Deacon Aarón Ramírez, who was studying here to become a priest; he fled to Mexico in 1999 after police sought to question him about a sexual molestation incident in Zillah.
SNAP said the diocese should investigate if any church officials helped Ramírez leave the country. Ramírez later admitted he had molested the Zillah teenage boy.
SNAP called on the diocese to reach out to each parish to see if others might have been victimized by Ramírez.
The second case concerns the Rev. Darell Mitchell, who had downloaded photos of naked boys onto his computer here.
SNAP denounced the bishop for not following the diocesan sexual abuse policy in dealing with the priest. Parents should have been alerted immediately, or Mitchell should have been removed from ministry during an investigation conducted by the FBI, the group argued.
"Your behavior trivializes child pornography, ignores the boys victimized in the photos and disregards the rights of parents," the letter said.
Jane Villanueva, chancellor of the Yakima diocese, said the Bishop "basically has no comment" about SNAP's letter.
Contacted by telephone Thursday, David Clohessy, SNAP national director, said the group has been aware of the Ramírez and Mitchell cases since January, when an article about the diocese ran in the Yakima Herald-Republic.
SNAP leaders decided to write Sevilla now because "we had hoped that with the bishop's duplicity and complicity in these cases, he might have taken some corrective measures by himself. Obviously he didn't," Clohessy said.
The group is particularly dismayed that the bishop didn't take stronger steps to warn Episcopal church authorities of Ramírez' past. Ramírez left the Catholic church and was serving as an Episcopal priest in Mexico until he was removed from ministry last fall.
Clohessy said he considers the diocese's actions in the two cases egregious, more so than many occurrences in other dioceses.
"These were recent incidents," Clohessy argued. "There was little excuse not to report sexual abuse in the 1970s and '80s, but there is absolutely no excuse to respond so poorly now."
The SNAP letter urged Sevilla to apologize to the Episcopal Bishop of Mexico for not sending him the Zillah police report. Sevilla did write the bishop about the molestation but didn't forward corroborating documents, although the Mexican bishop had requested evidence.
"If, as an ordained Episcopal clergyman, Ramírez won the trust of and abused Mexican church-going children, you, Bishop Sevilla, are at least partially responsible," SNAP's letter said.
Even though Clohessy admitted that there is no proof of church wrongdoing, he said it's legitimate to ask if Ramírez had help from church officials when he left the United States.
Clohessy said the details surrounding Ramírez's disappearance are similar to half a dozen clerics accused of abuse in California who also escaped to other countries.
According to another national SNAP representative, Sevilla should make an aggressive effort in every parish to see if there were other victims and encourage anyone with information about Ramírez to come forward.
"In Yakima we're saying what should have been done and what still can be done," said Barbara Dorris, national outreach director, reached by telephone in St. Louis.
However, one Catholic official isn't so sure.
Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., offers guidance to dioceses in handling allegations of sexual abuse by clerics.
When asked by telephone what further actions this diocese should take, Kettelkamp said, "It's hard for me to assess what has been done and what should be done sitting here in Washington, D.C."
Robert Fontana, a member of the local Voice of the Faithful Catholic support group, believes SNAP has ably demonstrated its overriding goal of protecting children.
"SNAP leaders are to the clergy sex abuse scandal what Martin Luther King and the NAACP were to the Civil Rights movement," Fontana wrote in an e-mail. "They are forcing change from the bottom up."
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