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  Diocese Warned of Priest's Record
Sexual Disorder Told in Letter

By Susan M. Loux
Press Enterprise [Riverside, CA]
November 3, 1997

For the Diocese of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, it had been a season of shame: Four priests were accused of sexually abusing children within an eight-month span in 1992 and 1993.

The diocese vowed to do better.

But records released as part of a developing civil lawsuit show that even as the diocese was grappling with those accusations, it hired a priest for St. Edward Church in Corona despite written warnings from a missionary order that the candidate had received months of treatment for sexual anxiety and should not work extensively with children.

That priest, Father Joe Fertal, now is at the center of the diocese's most recent scandal: a lawsuit in which he is alleged to have sexually molested a 16-year-old Lake Elsinore boy in 1995 after the two met through catechism class. The Riverside County district attorney's office is also looking into the allegations.

Fertal, who is no longer at the parish, has denied wrongdoing, as have the diocese and the Society of the Divine Word, the missionary order that reported Fertal's treatment to the diocese, then gave Fertal a clear employment reference, records show.

The suit, filed in Riverside Superior Court in June 1996, lists Fertal, St. Edward Church, the diocese and the missionary order as defendants. A trial date has not been set.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln, diocese spokesman, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but did release a statement regarding sexual abuse of children.

"We try very hard to be a loving, caring and healing church," Lincoln said. "We want to state emphatically that sexual abuse of a child constitutes reprehensible conduct. "

In the last several years, the diocese has "refined procedures and implemented stringent policies concerning both our religious employees and lay volunteers. While our procedures are at the forefront, they are never good enough," he said. "We are committed to having the most effective diocesan policies and procedures against any reprehensible and morally evil conduct involving children. "

Robert Oblachinski, the Riverside attorney representing the plaintiffs, a Lake Elsinore youth, now 18, and his mother, said the alleged abuse could have been avoided had the diocese been more diligent in reviewing Fertal's reported sexual history and weeded him out of its applicant pool in 1993.

Concern should have been raised, Oblachinski said, by a letter Fertal's missionary order wrote to Monsignor Donald Webber on March 8, 1993. In it, Joseph A. Miller, an order administrator, provides copies of two letters he had written to Fertal's previous employer, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in 1992. Those letters are included in the lawsuit's documents.

In them, Miller stated Fertal had received "extended treatment to address sexual identity anxieties" in 1989 at St. Michael's Institute in St. Louis, a facility operated by Servants of the Paraclete for troubled priests.

Fertal left the facility "understanding and accepting the fact that he is homosexual," Miller wrote. Fertal, in another letter introduced to the court file, acknowledges spending nearly five months in treatment.

Miller's letter emphasized that Fertal, who had just returned from 25 years in school work in the Philippines, had never been accused of sexual misconduct. Miller also noted that Fertal made great progress in treatment.

Miller added, however, that he "would not suggest that he (Fertal) take care of youth ministry in the parish," according to a letter. "He should not spend inordinate amounts of time with young people. It would be inappropriate to have young people in his private quarters. "

But the day after Miller wrote to Webber with the enclosures, he signed a clear reference for Fertal. It included the statement: "I am unaware of anything in his (Fertal's) background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children," according to records.

The Lake Elsinore youth is not the first person to allege sexual misconduct by a priest at St. Edward. In 1993, Rev. Anthony Garduno, then associate pastor, was accused of asking a man to strip and show his genitals during a pre-marriage counseling session. Garduno left the church in late 1993.

The other priests targeted by accusations in 1992 and 1993 involved alleged sexual misconduct with minors. Only one of them - the Rev. Edward L. Ball of Our Lady of Fatima Church in San Bernardino - was convicted of a crime. Ball pleaded guilty in December 1992 to two counts of lewd conduct with two altar boys and was sent to jail for nine months.

 
 

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