|Priest Vows to Fight Civil Suit Allegations
By Elizabeth Larson
Lake County News
June 3, 2008
LAKEPORT – At the end of his 10:30 a.m. Sunday mass – the biggest mass of the week – Father Ted Oswald stood before his parishioners at Saint Mary Immaculate Church and delivered a shocking piece of news.
The 63-year-old priest told his flock that he was taking a leave of absence because of a civil lawsuit that alleges he sexually abused a teenage boy between 1988 and 1995.
He said he couldn't do his work as priest until the lawsuit was resolved, adding that he wanted his day in court.
Oswald, who has been the parish's priest for 20 years, then asked his church members to pray for him and all involved in the case.
Lakeport resident Phillip Myers, a pastoral advisory council member who was attending mass that morning, said the reaction to the well-beloved priest's announcement was "absolute astonishment."
Late last month, a copy of a civil complaint making the allegations against Oswald was delivered to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa, according to Lt. Brad Rasmussen of the Lakeport Police Department.
Dierdre Frontczak, spokesperson for the Diocese of Santa Rosa – which oversees Lakeport – said the lawsuit specifically names the diocese and Oswald as defendants, but she had no other details.
The civil case is reportedly slated to be filed in Sonoma County Superior Court. However, as of Monday, court records there did not show that any cases involving Oswald or the diocese had been filed in the past month.
On Monday Rasmussen issued a brief statement to Lake County News on behalf of the department, where Oswald has been a volunteer chaplain, responsible for such duties as delivering death notices and offering counsel to officers and citizens. He and his dog therapy Rosie are known for visiting the hospital and jail, as well as their regular walks in Library Park.
Rasmussen said Oswald has been placed on administrative leave from his police chaplain position. Meanwhile, Lakeport Police asked the Lake County District Attorney's Office's Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an independent investigation of the civil case's allegations, which currently is in progress.
Oswald, who also has served for many years as one of the Lake County Sheriff's Office chaplains, asked Sheriff Rod Mitchell last week for a leave of absence while the matter is being reviewed, a request Mitchell confirmed Monday that he granted.
Frontczak confirmed Oswald was on a leave of absence from the parish. She said it's the diocese's policy to put anyone faced with such an allegation on leave until the legal process is sorted out.
"Our policy, to be on the safe side, is to safeguard our young people," said Frontczak.
She said it's not the diocese's policy to comment specifically on litigation.
The civil complaint has made no crossover to criminal allegations, according to officials.
The alleged victim has not contacted the Lakeport Police Department about his complaint, said Rasmussen – despite the fact that the case alleges the abuse took place in Lakeport.
Nor did the Lake County District Attorney's Office receive any criminal complaint relating to the matter, according to District Attorney Jon Hopkins.
"To my knowledge we have not been given a report asking us to file charges against Father Ted for anything," Hopkins said Monday.
Frontczak had no information on what, if any, monetary amount was specified in the civil lawsuit.
Since 1990, the diocese has paid or promised to pay $20 million in settlements relating to cases in which priests were accused of having sex with minors, according to a September 2007 Associated Press report that attributed those numbers to Frontczak.
Of the 17 priests who had been accused by the time of that report, allegations could only be verified in roughly half of the cases, according to the Associated Press.
Overwhelmed by community support
Oswald is a colorful figure, a motorcycle-riding priest who did a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, and spent three years in the military police and 11 years as a civilian police officer before leaving to pursue the priesthood.
"A good cop and a good priest are the same thing," he told Lake County News.
In 1984, the year he earned a master of divinity degree from a seminary in Rome, he met Pope John Paul II.
He said he came to Lakeport in 1988 to fill in for a short time and ended up staying and falling in love with the county. Since then, he has become a well-known local figure.
In April 2005, it was Oswald who officiated at the funeral mass for slain human rights advocate Marla Ruzicka, his authority and calm anchoring a grieving community, and angering actor Sean Penn because Oswald asked speakers to keep politics out of the event.
In an interview on Monday evening, Oswald said, "You know, I'm doing good, believe it or not."
He said he has been overwhelmed by support from his parishioners and fellow clergy members from different denominations, one of whom had called to pray with him a few minute before the interview.
Following the Sunday mass, Oswald said church members came to hug him after his message, many of them weeping, which caused him to break down.
"I want to fight this," he said of the allegations against him, which he stated are absolutely false.
He's an unlikely person to be accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, considering his background and his own efforts to bring such a case to light more than 30 years ago.
As a young teaching brother in the church in 1976, Oswald had investigated a sexual abuse case involving a Catholic priest with whom he had worked in Yuma, Ariz., according to an Arizona Daily Star report.
Oswald took reports from several boys involved and reported it to the Diocese of Tucson. The following year, he quit the order after he asked about the boys' statements and was told the diocese didn't know anything about them, he said. That priest was later transferred to another part of the diocese, according to the newspaper report.
While he knew about such cases firsthand before these recent allegations surfaced, Oswald said he has publicly – and from the pulpit – criticized the idea of "repressed memory," under which many priest abuse allegations have been made, and he believes those statements may have made him a target. He mentioned a Swiss priest who, after allegations of sexual abuse were made against him, committed suicide. Oswald added that he feels many innocent priests have been unfairly accused.
He said he received notification of the allegations about two weeks ago. Although the allegations are painful, he said he made it through Vietnam, and every day since then has been a gift. He believes he can make it through this situation as well.
His fellow veterans in the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 951 are standing behind him.
"We believe in Father Ted and we support Father Ted," said chapter President Dean Gotham.
Oswald is the chapter's chaplain, and has arranged for them to hold their monthly meetings at Saint Mary Immaculate's parish hall, said Gotham.
He added that the chapter has no plans to ask Oswald to take a leave of absence from his chaplain's post.
Future uncertain for priest, parish
Oswald, who also is caring for his 91-year-old mother, said he wants to get back to his work.
"I want to return to my parish ad retire there when it's time to retire," he said.
The church is still waiting to hear who will act as priest in Oswald's absence. Myers said they're supposed to know something from the diocese the middle of this week.
However, Myers, said the church is supporting Oswald, who he called a "fantastic priest" who works hard for people.
"All of the parishioners I have talked to are totally behind Father Ted," Myers said.
Added Gotham, "I think the Lord will look out for him on this one."
E-mail Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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