|Path to Abuse: Monterey Diocese Turned Blind Eye to Priests' Victims
By Virginia Hennessey
July 19, 2009
Records released by the Diocese of Monterey paint a damning picture of an era that church officials say has since ended.
It was a time when priests wandered in and out of parishes, celebrating Mass and interacting with children without the knowledge or oversight of diocesan leaders.
A time when a priest could arrive unannounced from another diocese and be named associate pastor without a background check. A time when a report of a priest's sexual misconduct sent the diocese scrambling to protect itself rather than the victim.
The unwritten policy then was to call the diocese's lawyer rather than police. Accused clergy were shuffled to new parishes or whisked out of the country and nothing was done to alert parishioners.
It was a flawed system that led to the repeated sexual abuse of at least two children, an 11-year-old altar boy and his younger brother. And while the church has instituted new safeguards to prevent such tragedies, they were not put in place until 2002, nearly a decade after the diocese learned of the case.
When church leaders learned the altar boy was assaulted by a priest who'd been allowed into the diocese without a reference check, they called their attorney, not police, and did nothing to protect the boy or search for other potential victims.
"It didn't enter my mind really," said Monsignor Declan Murphy, who handled the report for the diocese.
Instead, the offending priest, the Rev. John Velez, was quickly ushered out of the country. Murphy said the priest admitted his conduct, saying he was trying to teach the boy "how to become a man," and the monsignor simply wanted him out of the diocese.
Velez was returned to his Marist order in Mexico. His whereabouts are uncertain, though one clergyman said Velez is practicing as a priest in his native Colombia. The revelations all come as a result of a lawsuit by the altar boy, identified in court as "John Doe." Now 29, the victim settled his suit three days before trial last month for $1.2 million on the condition that Bishop Richard Garcia apologize to him and his family and make public all records produced in his case.
More than 100 documents and dozens of depositions, containing well over 1,000 pages of testimony by church leaders and others, were released this month by the victim's attorneys, John Manly and Rebecca Rhoades of Newport Beach.
'Blood on its hands'
Manly said the documents prove the diocese has "blood on its hands." Because the church did not report Velez's abuse and no criminal investigation was initiated, a second priest, the Rev. Juan Guillen of Arizona, continued to assault the boy and eventually victimized his younger brother.
Some of that abuse took place in Salinas, where Guillen visited the boys' family and, according to a church secretary, celebrated Mass during the annual monthlong vacation of their pastor, Manual Canal. Diocese officials said Canal, like other pastors in the diocese, was allowed to schedule his vacations and replacements without approval or oversight.
John Doe reported the abuse to police in Yuma years later after learning that Guillen had also abused his brother. Suspected of molesting children for decades in Arizona, Guillen is now serving a 10-year prison sentence there for molestation.
Church leaders say the released documents depict a different time for the church. New policies require any allegations of child molestation be reported to law enforcement or child protective services and priests with "credible" accusations against them are suspended from celebrating the sacraments unless the claims are proven false.
Diocese spokesman Warren Hoy said all diocese personnel who work with children — from priests to volunteers — must undergo background checks. Priests and deacons also undergo a psychological examination.
Hoy said incoming priests must have a letter of recommendation from their old diocese, whose officials will be contacted by the Monterey diocese. And visiting priests must be cleared by the diocese chancellor before they can perform "any duties whatsoever in the Diocese."
But those policies were not put into place until 2002, after the clergy-abuse scandal prompted a national conference of bishops which mandated the new rules. And the recently released records show those procedures have not always been followed rigorously in Monterey.
The diocese promptly suspended the ministerial rights of the Rev. Antonio Cortes in April after a Salinas teenager told police the priest had assaulted him. Cortes is now awaiting trial.
But in 2005, after a religious order settled an abuse claim against former diocese leader Monsignor Charles Fatooh — and after it was learned he rented a Maryland condominium to a notorious child molester — Fatooh was assigned to lead St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Cayucos, where he remains. The Rev. Paul Valdez also remains pastor of St. Jude Parish Community in Marina, where he was transferred after a young girl in Sacred Heart parish accused him of misconduct in 1999.
And when Garcia was installed as bishop in 2007, a known pedophile priest from his former parish in Sacramento was invited to the ceremony and greeted by Garcia. The Rev. Vincent Brady, who was once caught in bed with a 12-year-old girl, according to her parents, testified that no restrictions were placed on him when he attended a party for Garcia where children were present. Brady's diocese has said the claims against him were "credible."
Garcia declined to be interviewed for this report.
Hoy said all the priests of the Sacramento diocese were invited to Garcia's installation, a public event, and Brady did not participate in any ministerial duties.
"And since he was attending as a private citizen ... the Diocese didn't have any authority to place any restrictions on him," Hoy said. "The Bishop's authority only extends to priests in their official capacities."
Hoy said the claims against Fatooh and Valdez were investigated and determined to be unfounded.
Retired Bishop Sylvester Ryan testified, however, the allegation against Fatooh could not be thoroughly investigated because the alleged victim's attorney would not let him be interviewed. That man, who said he was abused when Fatooh was his principal at a Catholic high school in Southern California, settled the case with Fatooh's religious order.
The District Attorney's Office investigated the claim against Valdez and concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, a standard that falls below "unfounded."
Hoy said the diocese track record has been clean since 2002.
"Every audit we've undergone since then has shown that we do a good job of protecting children and of responding whenever allegations are raised," he said.
"The Diocese (and the church as a whole) did a poor job of handling previous cases, but we've learned from those mistakes and today we work aggressively to prevent sexual misconduct of any form and to protect all of the people, especially the children, to whom we minister."
The documents released this month date back more than a decade. Included among them, for the first time publicly, is John Doe's heart-wrenching testimony about the painful breach of a young boy's unquestioning faith.
'God on Earth'
Now 29, the victim said he was first molested by Guillen in 1988, when he and his family moved from Mexico to Yuma. He told no one, believing the priest was "God on Earth." The abuse would last a decade, continuing as his family moved back and forth from Yuma to Salinas.
His trusting parents allowed Guillen to take him on monthlong vacations to Mexico. He said Guillen took two boys each year, molesting both.
The boy and his family first moved to Salinas in 1989, attending Christ the King, a mission church of the Sacred Heart parish known to its largely migrant population as Cristo Rey. In 1991, Velez arrived. As Guillen had done years earlier in Arizona, Velez recruited John Doe as an altar boy and began molesting him.
Testimony now made public depicts a whorl of diocesan finger-pointing over who was responsible for supervising Velez. In the end, no one did.
According to records, Velez arrived in the diocese unannounced in January 1991 and asked Bishop Thaddeus Shubsda for work. A native of Colombia, he'd been ordained by the Marist order in Mexico at the age of 37 and had left El Paso, Texas, the year before.
The Diocese of Sacramento had turned down his request for work after checking Velez's references in El Paso. Shubsda didn't inquire. Before dying that April, he welcomed Velez.
Shubsda's successor, Fatooh, named Velez associate pastor in Salinas' Sacred Heart parish and assigned him to work in the Cristo Rey mission church. According to testimony, no background check was conducted and no questions were asked.
In position to observe
Various priests were in position to observe and supervise Velez, including reverends Manual Canal, James Burdick and Gregory Sandman, who lived with Velez in the rectory.
Each of the men testified last year that Velez was someone else's responsibility. Canal said Burdick was in charge. Burdick, who has since left the priesthood and married, said he never heard of Velez. And for reasons he could not explain, Sandman said he rarely spoke to Velez and never shared a meal with him, despite the fact they lived under the same roof.
Meanwhile, Velez was spending an inordinate amount of time with the victim, some of it behind closed doors in church offices in Salinas and Watsonville and none of it questioned by church secretaries or the boy's parents.
Ryan testified it has always been wrong for a priest to bring a child into his room. Such behavior at the least carries an appearance of impropriety, he said, and should be reported by anyone who sees it.
The victim and former Yuma, Ariz., police investigator Jennifer Munns said the lack of scrutiny by lay people lies in the devout Catholicism found in the immigrant community.
"My parents being Catholic ... for us, a priest was God on Earth," John Doe testified.
Munns said parishioners in Yuma verbally attacked the victim and his family even after Guillen admitted the molestations there. That diocese did nothing to intervene, she said.
"I had parents that would say — and they would be very open in front of the kids — 'He couldn't have done this. A priest would never do that.'"
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said such statements send a damaging message to children who are being abused, whether at the hands of a priest or a parent: Don't tell. No one will believe you.
Munns said parents she questioned felt so honored by the priest's attention that they believed his weekend requests to sleep with their children were innocent. Munns did not.
"Why would a priest that lives in Yuma go visit a house in Yuma and stay in the kids' bedrooms over the weekend when he had his own house?" she asked. "It doesn't make sense."
Ironically, it was this implicit trust that eventually led one of John Doe's abusers to report the other. Disturbed by the increasingly intimate nature of Velez's molestations, the boy turned to his lifelong "padre," Guillen.
Alarmed that his own conduct might be discovered, Guillen intervened. He reported the abuse to the diocese and the boy's parents, but told the parents to leave their son's therapy to him.
Because acting bishop Fatooh was away, Guillen's report went to Murphy, then pastor of the Carmel Basilica and Fatooh's second-in-command. He met with Sandman and Velez, who admitted his conduct. Murphy, now retired to Ireland, dispatched Sandman and diocese attorney Al Ham to meet with the boy's parents.
Money for counseling
They asked for money to pay for their son's counseling. According to the victim, his mother later told him Sandman laughed at her and dismissed the request, telling her the molestation was "no big deal," something that "happens to a lot of kids," and that her son would "get over" it.
Believing they had no recourse, the parents followed Guillen's advice and left the boy's well-being in his hands. Undiscovered, Guillen continued molesting the boy for more than six years.
Meanwhile, by his own admission, Murphy's focus was to remove Velez, who he'd never heard of before the molestation was reported. But he wasn't alarmed enough to do it immediately. He received the report on a Friday afternoon and instructed Sandman to bring Velez to the diocese office the following Monday.
"Were you concerned that between Friday and Monday that Father Velez would continue to abuse the little boy?" Murphy was asked in deposition.
"I guess ... no, it didn't enter my mind really," he said, adding that he did not call the parents, anyone at the parish or instruct any of his subordinates there to alert parishioners in case there were other victims.
"All I was interested in doing was that one case and getting ... him out of there right now," he said. "It wasn't my job to follow other things."
Who was in charge?
Canal, who was present in the parish when the alleged abuse occurred but gone on his annual trip to Spain when it was reported, also testified he made no inquiries upon his return. Velez was gone and Sandman was in charge of the investigation, he said, an assertion that Sandman denied.
Fatooh testified the abuse was not reported to authorities because diocese officials were not "mandated reporters," like teachers, who are required to report child abuse. Murphy sent Velez to a retreat house in San Juan Bautista where he attempted suicide with a drug overdose within hours.
Velez was transported to the Catholic-owned Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz. Ham, the diocese's attorney, said he informed Dr. David Hoban, the treating physician, that he was a mandated reporter.
Among the documents released by the diocese is a two-page copy of the California Penal Code section faxed to Hoban which defines mandated reporters. There is no indication a report was made or an investigation initiated; each of the priests and church secretaries deposed said they were never questioned about the abuse by anyone in the diocese or law enforcement.
Hoban, a Santa Cruz psychiatrist, is now the lead defendant in a criminal case naming six doctors for allegedly falsifying their time cards at Salinas Valley State Prison. By e-mail from Italy, he declined comment.
In July 2002, after the "Dallas Conference" of bishops, the diocese made its first official report of the Velez case, notifying the Monterey County District Attorney's Office. By then the criminal statute of limitations had run out and Velez had disappeared.
The one-page report says a complaint was filed and investigated by the "sensitive issues team." It said the priest was suspended and "returned to Mexico to his religious order." None of the priests deposed last year said they had ever heard of the sensitive issues team.
Virginia Hennessey can be reached at 753-6751 or email@example.com
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