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  Windsor Pastor Resigns Priest Accused of Molesting 3 Boys in '70s

By Carol Benfell and Tina Anima
Press Democrat
November 20, 1996

Father Vincent O'Neill, who abruptly left as pastor of Windsor's Catholic church two months ago, resigned that post over the weekend amid allegations he molested altar boys in the late 1970s.

Church attorney Paul Gaspari said O'Neill, 51, was removed from his pastoral duties at Our Lady of Guadalupe and placed on administrative leave in September, after three men went to the diocese alleging they had been sexually abused by the priest nearly 20 years ago.

O'Neill is the fourth North Coast priest in the past two years to face child molestation accusations. The church has paid settlements of more than $2 million and has faced angry parishioners who say church officials are more interested in protecting priests than the children who were victims.

Gaspari said Bishop Patrick Ziemann was saddened by the accusations against O'Neill. "We are looking into the matter and we will respond appropriately," he said Tuesday night.

Gaspari said he will meet today with Michael Meadows, a Walnut Creek attorney specializing in child molestation cases and representing the three men who say they were 13 years old and altar boys at Sonoma County parishes when the molestations occurred.

"The molestations were extremely serious and occurred over a long period of time," Meadows said.

Ziemann declined last week and on Monday to discuss the circumstances of O'Neill's status, saying it would be "a rash judgment" to assume the priest stepped down because of the sexual allegations.

On Tuesday, however, Ziemann authorized Gaspari to respond to requests for information from The Press Democrat, Gaspari said.

"When we were first approached by these individuals, they asked us not to discuss this publicly," Gaspari said. "We were honoring their request."

O'Neill could not be located for comment. Ziemann would not say where O'Neill is and said any discussion of his departure "would be sharing confidences that exist between a bishop and a priest."

The priest's resignation as pastor came after two turbulent years at Our Lady of Guadalupe, during which time cultural tensions between Anglo and Latino parishioners escalated to the point where Latino parishioners boycotted the church's annual Windsorfest celebration.

O'Neill, who has served in at least seven parishes in the past 25 years, celebrated his silver jubilee in the priesthood in June. During a celebration at the Windsor church, he acknowledged a long battle in past years with alcoholism.

In August, O'Neill took the unusual step of apologizing publicly to Latino parishioners -- in halting Spanish -- for the shortcomings of his pastorship.

But in mid-September he suddenly dropped from sight, and Father Angelito Peries was named interim administrator.

"It wasn't planned at all," said Xavier Ochoa, associate pastor under O'Neill. "It was a really strange absence."

Ziemann explained O'Neill's absence as an extended vacation last month, not unusual for a priest after 25 years of service.

O'Neill, in a letter distributed to parishioners at Masses last weekend, announced Peries would be the new pastor and said he shared parishioners' hope for a new beginning "as I celebrate my own journey toward healing." He gave no further explanation, leaving clergy and parishioners puzzled.

Ziemann said then that O'Neill was "taking time off to rest and for relaxation" and that he had not been reassigned to other pastoral duties. "We'll wait and see how he develops in his own rest and time off," he said.

Ochoa said he did not know O'Neill intended to resign until Saturday morning, when Ziemann called him and told him O'Neill had been reassigned.

"The only thing I knew was that Bishop Ziemann explained that Father O'Neill had asked for a period of meditation and rest and that Father Angelito would be coming to take his place," Ochoa said.

Peries also said he was not told why O'Neill resigned. O'Neill was not sick, he said, "but I know he was very tired."

"The announcement just said he resigned. There's been a lot of speculation," said one parishioner who asked not to be identified.

Meadows is representing the three men, all in their early 30s, who claim O'Neill molested them in the mid- to late 1970s. All three came from devout Catholic families and were altar boys in parishes where O'Neill was a priest, Meadows said.

"He was the nice priest who was willing to take time with children, and take them on camping trips," Meadows said.

Meadows said he could not release his clients' names until he spoke with them.

The three say O'Neill, who was drinking heavily in those years, got them drunk and molested them, according to Meadows. Some of the sexual acts took place in motels and others in the rectory of Holy Spirit Church in Santa Rosa, Meadows said.

They came forward now, only after realizing that some of their "life problems" were related to the molestations, Meadows said.

"They've gotten involved in psychotherapy and determined they need to do something about this," he said.

Gaspari said no lawsuit has been filed, and he would be meeting with Meadows "to start the dialogue as to where we're going from here."

He said O'Neill was placed on administrative leave as soon as the allegations were made, and he will remain on leave until "all the facts are sorted out."

The church's new policy calls for removing priests when such charges are made and for the church to reach out to the victims pastorally as well as responding to their legal claims, Gaspari said.

"If there are other victims, we would like to know it," he said. "We are concerned for the impact of this on the church community."

Although the bishop has promised parishioners he would be forthright in handling future accusations against priests, Ziemann has declined to say if O'Neill remains in the diocese. He said O'Neill's work record naming the parishes where he served was not available. Ziemann would not say whether he asked for O'Neill's resignation.

Peries said pastors typically spend six years at a church, but O'Neill has been transferred more rapidly. During 25 years, his assignments included Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, St. Bernard's Church in Eureka, Holy Spirit Church in Santa Rosa, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Fort Bragg, St. Catherine's Church in Monte Rio and St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental, as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor.

O'Neill is the fourth priest in the North Coast to face allegations of child molestation. In the Bay Area, the Catholic Church has paid out more than $2.5 million in settlements during the past year in cases involving three priests, including two North Coast priests -- Austin Peter Keegan and Gary Timmons.

Timmons, who was accused of sexually abusing more than a dozen boys on the North Coast during the past 25 years, pleaded no contest to fondling two altar boys and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Most of the other charges against Timmons were dropped because the legal deadline for prosecuting the decades-old abuse had passed.

But District Attorney Mike Mullins said state law has changed in the past year, and he no longer will be prohibited from prosecuting charges brought by adult victims of child abuse.

Mullins said he had not heard of the allegations against O'Neill and would call Meadows to see if the victims intend to report the matter to police.

Another North Coast priest, John Rogers, committed suicide in Belgium after he was publicly accused in the United States of molesting a young boy and was called home by Ziemann.

 
 

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