|Group Still Seeks Brenkle's Removal
Ignores Family Request to Stop Move against St. Helena Priest
By Jesse Duarte
October 16, 2008
An advocacy group for those who have been abused by priests is still calling for Monsignor John Brenkle to be removed from his position as head of a sex abuse review panel — even though the altar boy who was the subject of a false accusation against Brenkle is asking them to leave Brenkle alone.
Luke Wilmoth, now 27 and living in Las Vegas, maintains that the accusation by his father that Brenkle lured him into his sacristy under false pretenses was unfounded, and that Brenkle never abused him. He wants the advocacy group — Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP — to retract its call for Brenkle to be removed as the head of the Santa Rosa Diocese's sex abuse review panel.
SNAP representatives say they're not reversing their position on Brenkle. Just the fact that Brenkle said he was accused should be enough to disqualify him from heading the board, they say.
"Father Brenkle is a fine man and has done many positive things for the community of St. Helena and the Diocese of Santa Rosa," said Luke Wilmoth in an e-mail to SNAP Western Regional Director Mary Grant. "In no way has he ever, under any circumstances, ever made me feel uncomfortable or sexually abuse(d) me.
"Furthermore Father Brenkle's role on the review board is a position where his grace, intelligence and understanding are a much needed asset. Please stop this debilitating abuse of a good and holy man that has done more for his community than most hope to do."
Wilmoth's e-mail to Grant states that " ... My family members feared for me and knew what I was going through on my own at home."
That statement is consistent with two letters Wilmoth wrote to Brenkle in response to an allegation his father, George Wilmoth, leveled against Brenkle. One of those letters was provided to police.
In response to Luke, George and Sherry Wilmoth wrote a letter to the Star on Oct. 6. "Our reply to you is the same as we replied to Bishop Walsh in September 10, 2002. In part, they wrote: 'We are at the point in the Santa Rosa diocese where accusers must validate their own worthiness to complain. It complicates an investigation when the bishop (or St. Helena Star) pursues the accuser instead of the accused (and) fabricates a wrong against the accuser.'"
SNAP won't budge
Grant said SNAP won't retract its demand that Brenkle be removed from the board. Whether he's guilty is not the point; just the fact that he said he'd been accused makes him unsuitable to chair the board, said Grant.
Having a priest, particularly one who says he's been accused, at the head of a review panel is intimidating to victims of abuse who are already scared to come forward, she said.
At a meeting of the review panel earlier this year, in the presence of a SNAP member and alleged victim of abuse, Brenkle said he'd been accused.
"He came out and said, 'I know what it's like to be accused,'" said Grant. "What does that do to a victim who's trying to report abuse. Does that reflect somebody who can be impartial? No, it doesn't."
There are plenty of lay people, and even other priests, who haven't been accused who could head the review panel, she said.
"Brenkle is more concerned, in my opinion, about keeping his position and bolstering his ego than he is about being sensitive to the needs of victims," she said.
In fairness, SNAP wouldn't advocate that an alleged victim lead the panel either, Grant added.
SNAP's Sept. 8 letter to Bishop Daniel Walsh requesting Brenkle's removal referred to him as an "accused molester."
SNAP's Mary Pitcher, who co-signed the letter, said that in the future she wouldn't use that phrase to describe Brenkle.
"It doesn't matter to me that he's been cleared," said Pitcher. "It matters to me that I don't think he's the appropriate person for the board."
Siblings speak out
When Luke heard about the article in the Sept. 25 Star, he called Brenkle, who he's kept in touch with over the years, mostly through informal chats about golf and football.
"I told him, 'This is completely unnecessary. You should be on that board. You're a pillar of our community. They need to retract this.'"
A Star review of St. Helena Police records revealed no accusations of sexual molestation against Brenkle.
Luke's siblings are also speaking out in support of Brenkle. His sister, Pam Wilmoth, who lived in St. Helena until earlier this year, said she also contacted Grant to share her thoughts on Brenkle.
"He's been a wonderful man to our whole family," she told the Star. "Since the story broke in the paper last week I've talked to all of my siblings, and the stories of Brenkle's compassion that have come out have been beautiful. I think the world of the man."
Pam WIlmoth said she's proud to have had her daughter be an altar server under Brenkle's supervision.
Luke's brother, Michael Wilmoth, who now lives in Venice Beach, was also an altar server under Brenkle. He said he left home when he was 13 and "was sleeping in a doorway in an alley during the rainy season.
"When Monsignor Brenkle found out about this he told me he had a little space where I could put a sleeping bag and some clothes. … He took me to the store, got me some clothes, and told me I could have at least one meal a day at the church."
Today Michael Wilmoth co-owns St. Helena's Cook restaurant with his brother, Jude.
"It's really a shame that (George Wilmoth) would say things that have obviously impacted Father Brenkle's life," said Michael. "I think he was probably intimidated by the fact that Monsignor Brenkle was concerned about us kids."
Luke, the youngest of eight children, said the accusation against Brenkle stemmed from a 1993 incident when Luke's older siblings, who had grown up and moved out of the household, gave Brenkle a letter expressing their concern about their 12-year-old brother's well-being.
According to Luke, Brenkle took him aside either during or after a wedding, showed him the letter, and asked how things were going at home. Wilmoth responded that everything was fine.
Brenkle reminded the boy that he could confide in him if he needed to, and the conversation ended.
"I told him emphatically that nothing happened," said Wilmoth. "Honestly I deserve an Oscar.
"I was giving the façade that everything was OK because for so many years we'd all been ingrained with the understanding that whatever happened at home stayed at home."
After the wedding, Brenkle gave Wilmoth a $10 stipend, which was standard for all altar servers at that time.
Police took no action
After Luke told his father about the conversation, George Wilmoth wrote a letter to police and a church official in Washington, D.C., claiming that the $10 had been a bribe to entice Luke into breaking the commandment about honoring one's father and mother.
Around that time, Luke Wilmoth says he remembers being questioned by child services and, he believes, a police officer, about whether he was being abused. A police report indicates police filed the letter and took a report for informational purposes only.
In 2002 George Wilmoth wrote a letter to Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Diocese accusing Brenkle of "luring our young son into his sacristy one night under false pretenses."
Walsh showed the letter to Brenkle, who took it to the police. They checked their files, found the original 1993 report, and took no further action.
When Luke, then serving in the Marines in Okinawa, heard about the letter, he wrote a notarized letter stating that the accusation was groundless. Brenkle gave that letter to the police.
In July 2008, Luke wrote another letter exonerating Brenkle because a check of the diocese's records found that the 2002 letter was missing.
Luke said he hasn't talked to his parents for more than five years.
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