Priest's Honors Anger Accusers
Celebrated Cleric Faced Sex Abuse Claims
By Kim Vo
May 13, 2007
The accolades came soon after the priest died. Fellow clergy celebrated him in homilies and parish newsletters. Reporters wrote poignant obituaries, and the charity where he had long volunteered named a fundraiser in his honor - the Philip E. McCrillis Golf Clinic, for the man who "gave hope to ... patients and their families."
Many people, it seems, didn't know that three years ago, church officials had investigated, settled a financial claim and found "reasonable cause to suspect that Fr. McCrillis engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor."
"Everyone is shocked and upset," said Alicia Swanson, a spokeswoman for the charity - the Parkinson's Institute. "Nobody knew."
The Institute canceled a fundraiser Saturday, it says, for unrelated reasons. The Villages Golf & Country Club in San Jose said it never would have co-sponsored the event had it known about the allegations.
And the sisters who say McCrillis molested them when they were in middle school are bewildered that so few people knew about the man they say harmed them - and they're infuriated that church leaders let people glorify the priest after he died Feb. 1.
"He injured and abused and ruined a lot of people's lives," said Catherine, a school teacher living in Palo Alto who asked to be identified by her middle name. Her attorney contacted the Mercury News after the obituary was published. "It shouldn't be a secret," she said.
McCrillis' family, however, strongly denies the charges, insisting the priest never harmed the sisters or any other children.
"I need to speak on behalf of my brother," said Sally Fourmont of Garden Grove, who added that she trusted her own four children with McCrillis. "He didn't do anything wrong, and he's in the grave."
A right to know? Releasing names of accused priests Father McCrillis' case touches on a national debate about whether Catholic dioceses should release the names of all priests they have determined were credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Of the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States, an estimated 15 have released names, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This year, the Diocese of San Diego established a Megan's Law-style feature on its Web site for people to search for accused priests by name, parish or city.
On the East Coast, a former priest whom church officials quietly retired allegedly went on to molest another child. Although that 2006 arrest prompted several dioceses to release the names of their own accused priests, most dioceses have stopped short of doing so.
The Diocese of San Jose, which investigated allegations against McCrillis and does not release such names, said in a statement that "in the United States, persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law."
Critics say lives of innocent people can be ruined by false accusations that are widely publicized. Fourmont recalled a Catholic school teacher in her Orange County diocese who was wrongly accused of molesting a student.
"What bothers me is no one ever proves anything," she said, adding that her brother is similarly being smeared. "If they can prove it, then sure."
It's a careful balance, officials say, between protecting the public and defaming innocent people.
"Does it do any good?" asked Maurice Healy, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which doesn't release names. "And does it do any harm?"
How it all began From family friend to accused abuser Catherine and her sister Karen met McCrillis in the 1960s at St. Albert the Great in Palo Alto, where McCrillis was an associate pastor. The Mercury News does not identify victims of sexual abuse unless they choose to be named. The women agreed to use their given names.
After the girls' parents divorced, McCrillis began comforting the family. He and their mother had an affair, the sisters said in legal documents. And in the late 1960s, when they were in junior high, they say he began molesting them - back rubs leading to fondling and eventually, for Karen, to intercourse.
They said McCrillis took them on separate overnight trips to his cabin or to his apartment at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park. Their parents didn't object.
"They thought priests were above everything," said Catherine, whose father was raised in a household where priests often joined families at dinner and social gatherings.
The sisters say the abuse stopped before they reached high school, though McCrillis continued seeing their mother, helping care for her until her death in 1991.
McCrillis' family said the priest did live with the girls' mother but that they slept in separate rooms. They didn't know whether the two had a sexual relationship, but they said the living arrangement was in keeping with McCrillis' style of not spending all his time with other clergy.
Account 'credible' The two sides of diocese's probe After the Catholic Church's sex scandal exploded across the country, the sisters sued in 2004. They eventually won a low six-figure settlement with the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which had jurisdiction at the time.
The Diocese of San Jose examined their claims and wrote in a March 18, 2004, letter to Karen that it found "the accusations credible and determines there is reasonable cause to suspect that Fr. McCrillis engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor." The letter was signed by Bernard Nojadera, of the diocese's Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.
Fourmont dismissed the significance of the finding, saying that at the time of the investigation, her brother had advanced Parkinson's Disease and did not mount a vigorous defense. She said he told family members about the case - she helped him pay his legal bills - and assured them of his innocence.
Catherine and Karen say they wanted financial compensation for three decades of therapy flowing from their molestation. They say they suffered depression, eating disorders and alcoholism throughout their lives. Relationships with men were troubled; both are now divorced and Karen says that she feared sex.
Anxiety caused Catherine, now 51, to pull her hair out, eventually causing a severe staph infection. She didn't discuss the source of her problems, she said, until the mid-1980s. While being treated for anorexia, her therapist asked, "Have you ever been molested?"
After the lawsuit Legacy lost in 'moment of sin' By the time Karen and Catherine settled their lawsuit, McCrillis was no longer active in the church. Parkinson's Disease forced him to retire in July 2003, after an eclectic career. In addition to pastoral assignments - St. Albert, St. Nicholas in Los Altos, St. Thomas of Canterbury and Holy Spirit in San Jose - he ran two restaurants and wrote poetry.
After the 2004 investigation, Bishop Patrick McGrath forbade McCrillis from performing priestly duties - including celebrating sacraments - in public, wearing clerical clothing or accepting teaching or speaking engagements. He was told to live a life of "prayer and penance," though he was allowed to help the diocese research ways to inspire young adults to become more active in the church. Copies of the diocese's investigation also were forwarded to the police.
In retirement, McCrillis took up painting and began going to the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, where he was a patient and a volunteer.
After McCrillis died, Father John Hester mentioned him in a homily at St. Thomas Aquinas, which led to a Mercury News obituary. The family said hundreds of donations were made to the Parkinson's Institute in his name.
"He gets to die and have this wonderful legacy," said Karen, now 50 and a medical assistant in the Santa Cruz-area. "It's like a kick to the gut."
For the obituary, the Mercury News contacted fellow priests, the Parkinson's Institute, McCrillis' family and Roberta Ward, spokeswoman for the Diocese of San Jose. None mentioned that the diocese had found credible accusations against him.
"I did not know that," Ward said later.
Father Brendan McGuire, who succeeded McCrillis at Holy Spirit, said he was also unaware. After McCrillis died, McGuire wrote in the parish newsletter, "We are proud to stand on Fr. Phil's vision and challenge to us. May he enjoy the ride into heaven and the new view of his life's work. May he rest in peace."
McCrillis helped energize the laity, he said. "That's the hard part for me," said McGuire. "The good he does gets lost in this moment of weakness - if you want to call it that - this moment of sin."
The shadow that sexual allegations cast has prompted some to ask what good it does to release priests' names, especially because many of those accused are retired or dead.
"Every diocese has to make the decision differently depending on their circumstances - the number of priests involved, the number of allegations involved," said San Francisco's Healy. "It's not a simple issue."
Dioceses that release names are criticized anyway, Healy noted, often by people who complain the lists aren't complete. Indeed, that's the accusation in San Diego, where victims' advocates say there are far more culpable priests than the 38 whose names were released.
It's more constructive to create an environment where people feel safe to report problems, Healy said, noting that San Francisco's newsletter regularly prints the phone number for victims to call.
He also questioned holding churches to a different standard than other organizations, which are not compelled to release names of their employees who have been accused of crimes.
Critics speak out Victims' advocates fight for change Such explanations exasperate Terry McKiernan, president of bishop-accountability.org, a Massachusetts-based group compiling a national, Internet database of accused priests.
"We shake our heads, honestly, because this is not the right behavior for them to engage in if they want to reassure people," McKiernan said. After years of shuffling around problem priests, he said, people are skeptical when church leaders say they're now thoroughly addressing abuse cases.
It's a complicated matter, countered Bill Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"There's so many things to factor in," said Ryan. "Some of these people accused have never been convicted."
And "credible allegations" falls short of saying a priest was guilty, "especially considering the limitations on credible examination after a long period of time," said officials at the Diocese of San Jose, who responded to questions via e-mail.
Critics argue that many priests were never charged because church officials protected them until the statute of limitations expired.
A 2006 study commissioned by the Conference found 4,392 priests had allegations against them from 1950 to 2002. The study's authors stressed that those numbers were wholly provided by the church. Critics contend that the number of problem priests is likely higher.
"We began to keep a list because there's no such list anywhere. It makes it hard," McKiernan said, "and it's very unfair to communities."
It was community concerns that prompted the Diocese of Portland, Maine, to release the names of four priests this year before the Vatican finished reviewing their cases. The reviews of those older cases were taking longer than anticipated - beyond a year for some. Bishop Richard Malone grew alarmed after a former Delaware priest - whose name had not been released even though the diocese knew about past accusations - was arrested in October 2006, accused of molesting a boy during the previous five years in New York, where the priest had moved.
With that, the common argument that most priests "are elderly and no longer a threat, went out the window," said Sue Bernard, a spokeswoman for that diocese. "In the final analysis, the bishop leaned to the safety of children."
Releasing the names early was not universally popular; critics charge that the priests' due process was trampled. "It's hard to please everyone," she said. "It's an issue of fairness and an issue of safety."
Contact Kim Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5719.
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