Diocese Settles Molest Claims

By Carol Benfell
Press Democrat
January 16, 1997

The Catholic church has settled the claims of five men who say they were sexually molested as teen-agers in the late 1970s by the Rev. Vincent O'Neill, a North Coast priest for 25 years.

O'Neill, 51, resigned as pastor of Windsor's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in November after the men went to Bishop Patrick Ziemann with their accusations.

O'Neill is believed to be in a church-run rehabilitation center, although the Santa Rosa Diocese will not say where he is.

O'Neill is the fourth North Coast Catholic priest in the past two years to face child molestation accusations. In the Bay Area, the Catholic church has paid more than $2.5 million to settle molestation claims.

The latest settlement, announced Wednesday, requires O'Neill to undergo treatment for substance abuse and his sexual proclivities. The diocese also has agreed never to place him in any position where he has routine contact with children, said Steve Arnold, one of two attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Bishop Patrick Ziemann will send a letter of apology to each victim, Arnold said.

"I think the plaintiffs felt the church was acting appropriately by apologizing and ensuring that Father O'Neill would receive the treatment he needs and would not have the opportunity to hurt anyone else," Arnold said.

"The compensation, along with the other agreements, was satisfactory. The plaintiffs were not primarily interested in money and, as a package, they felt the settlement was fair," he said.

The settlement agreement prohibits anyone involved from discussing the amount of money the five men received or the specific sex acts involved.

"We agreed to keep private things private," said Michael Meadows, the other attorney for the plaintiffs. "This happened a long time ago and these guys are residents in the community."

Arnold said the secrecy agreement protects the plaintiffs from greedy friends and relatives and also allows the church a measure of damage control.

"I think the church felt relieved there were only five complaints and they could settle them all at once," Arnold said. "They wanted to put it to rest."

Ziemann could not be reached for comment late Wednesday night, nor could the church's attorney, Paul Gaspari. O'Neill has yet to respond publicly to the allegations.

Meadows attributed the settlement -- only four months after the accusations were made -- to Ziemann.

"There's been a clear change in approach by the diocese since Bishop Ziemann took over," Meadows said. "There's a willingness to confront the problems of the past and own up to responsibilities. "

O'Neill is the fourth North Coast priest in the past two years to face accusations of molesting teen-age boys. The church has paid settlements of more than $2 million to victims and countless other dollars in counseling for both victims and priests.

O'Neill was removed in September as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church after the allegations of child molestation were made. Ziemann placed O'Neill on administrative leave while the church conducted an investigation.

O'Neill's accusers were altar boys at different Sonoma County parishes where he served. The molestations were extremely serious and occurred over a long period of time, Meadows said.

The plaintiffs asked their names not be made public.


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