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  SR Bishop Vows to Turn in Priests

By Mike Geniella
Press Democrat
April 2, 2002

Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh said Monday he will immediately turn over to local authorities any credible allegation of a priest sexually abusing a youth.

In his most candid remarks since a national scandal began to engulf the Catholic Church, Walsh vowed that any Diocese of Santa Rosa priest suspected of sexual abuse will face not only criminal prosecution, but will be stripped of his priestly vocation if proven guilty.

"If you step across that line, you're finished as a priest," he said.

In an hourlong interview in his Santa Rosa office the day after Easter, Walsh spoke openly about the failed policies of the church in dealing with priests who sexually abuse minors.

He acknowledged that even after dealing with sexual misconduct by his predecessor with another priest, he was unprepared for the intense scrutiny following revelations of sexual abuse nationwide and the increased attention brought by the Santa Rosa criminal trial of Don Kimball, a former Healdsburg and Santa Rosa priest.

"I'm very tired. It's been a long month," Walsh said.

Walsh said he adopted his "zero-tolerance" policy because it's clear the church's past policy of rehabilitation and transfer of priests who have sexually abused minors often has proven to be the wrong course of action.

"In many cases these things have been mishandled," Walsh said.

He said much has been learned about sexual abuse involving priests over the past two decades.

"We were advised then that therapy could lead to rehabilitation. We were following the medical opinion of the time," he said.

"Sadly, I think we all know differently now. Removing a priest, sending him for treatment and then reassigning him to church life is not the answer."

Walsh said there's no quick fix to public perception that church leaders have been more concerned about preserving the church's image, and the priesthood, than about the plight of scores of victims.

Church leaders are guilty of having not fully recognized the "scars on the victims," he said.

"We failed to understand the effects. We missed that completely. It is hugely unfortunate. All we can say is that it's not going to happen again," he said.

Apologies aren't enough, he said.

"All I can do is stay the course, do what I think is right, and do it according to the values of the Gospel," he said.

Walsh said his promise to turn over to local authorities any credible allegation involving sexual abuse of minors is a step toward that. It comes after the diocese provided church members with a statement on Easter pledging a "no-tolerance" policy.

He promised detailed record-keeping of all sexual misconduct claims reviewed by a special five-member committee.

"I know people find it hard to believe, but there are no records of what went on in the diocese in the past," Walsh said.

Until the change in reporting policies, sexual abuse complaints were handled at the sole discretion of former bishops.

Walsh said he was unaware of many of the details of the Santa Rosa cases until he left his position as bishop in Las Vegas to take over from former Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann in 1999.

Walsh said he refuses to second-guess the decisions of former Bishop John Steinbock and then Ziemann.

In the Kimball trial, scheduled to resume next week, the one-time youth director is charged with raping a 14-year-old girl in a chapel at Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa in 1977, and with lewd conduct with a 13-year-old girl in the rectory at St. John's in Healdsburg in 1981. He denies the charges.

Steinbock, now bishop in Fresno, testified in the trial that he had intended to transfer Kimball, who had admitted to him that he fondled six teen-agers. Instead, he suspended Kimball when he refused reassignment to a jail or hospital.

Walsh said, "I can't read into Bishop Steinbock's mind, 10 years ago or whenever it was, but he was going to be reassigned with no contact with young people. That's the way we did things in those days."

Walsh also said the diocese is not paying for Kimball's defense, nor is it paying him a salary.

He said Ziemann tried to deal with problems as they were presented. "To my knowledge, Bishop Ziemann repeatedly met with victims of clergy abuse and tried to treat them fairly and as charitably as possible," Walsh said.

Walsh said he doesn't condone the secrecy surrounding past church actions, but he said victims have rights to privacy, and many insist on it as part of past agreements to settle their claims.

In the past 20 years, the Santa Rosa Diocese has paid $7.4 million to settle claims of victims allegedly molested by seven priests, none of whom is currently active among the diocese's community of 107 active and retired priests.

Identities of five of the priests, including a San Francisco priest, Austin Peter Keegan, who was assigned to work in the Santa Rosa Diocese, have been known publicly for several years.

When Keegan was sent to Santa Rosa, Walsh was secretary to the archbishop of San Francisco. Walsh said at the time he was unaware of any specific problems involving Keegan. Subsequently, he recalled, a complaint was brought to the archdiocese by a victim's family and the family was referred to Bishop Mark Hurley, then head of the Santa Rosa Diocese.

"I don't recall the specific time. I do remember the incident. And I do remember the family being very upset," Walsh said. "Today, that same conversation would probably lead to quite a different set of events."

Walsh, as he has before, refused to identify the remaining two priests involved. He cited confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements that he said were requested by the victims.

"If they want to step forward on their own, that's their decision. But I'm not going to open that door, despite the contentions we're still covering up something," Walsh said.

One of the cases dates to the 1960s, he said. He said the other surfaced about four years ago and involved incidents involving a priest in the early 1980s.

"I don't think identifying the priests, who are no longer active, serves any purpose at this point. I intend to honor the confidentiality agreements," Walsh said.

As bishop, Walsh, 63, oversees a diocese with 140,000 members in a six-county region stretching from Sonoma County to the Oregon border. He receives the same pay as a parish priest, $1,842 a month, and also is provided housing, a car and transportation expenses.

About the anger sometimes directed at him, Walsh quipped, "I'm a pretty cheap punching bag."

Walsh said the Catholic Church will weather the current crisis.

"I believe the progress we've made in the Santa Rosa Diocese reflects that," he said.

As painful as the notoriety is,Walsh said, "it is a good thing."

"We get complacent because we think we're doing the best job we can. And then this kind of thing gets the spotlight," he said.

Walsh said it's like God is saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Knock, knock. Is anyone home?"

"In the long run, I think this will mark a very good turning point for our church," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mike Geniella at 462-6470 or mgeniella@pressdemocrat.com.

PHOTO: 1 by KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat

Bishop Daniel Walsh of the Santa Rosa Diocese discusses the church's policy on sexual abuse by priests in an interview at his office Monday.

Infobox:

Problem Priests

These five priests, publicly identified by the Santa Rosa Diocese, have been accused of molesting minors and disciplined.

Gary Timmons, publicly accused in 1994, was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually abusing young boys at an Eel River church camp and in parish bedrooms in Santa Rosa. Timmons served four years and was released in 2000.

John Rogers, publicly accused in 1995, was chaplain of the Cardinal Newman Center at Humboldt State University for 12 years until August 1995, when he was removed because of an accusation of child molestation. Bishop Patrick Ziemann sent Rogers to study in Belgium, pending an investigation. Under orders to return to Santa Rosa to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, Rogers committed suicide.

Austin Peter Keegan, publicly accused in 1995, was a parish priest in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s before being transferred to Santa Rosa. He was removed from St. Eugene's in Santa Rosa after a molestation complaint.

Vincent O'Neill, publicly accused in 1996, resigned from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor in November 1996 after three men went to Ziemann alleging O'Neill molested them when they were altar boys in the 1970s. In the following months, two more men came forward. No criminal charges were filed. O'Neill died of a brain tumor in 1998.

Don Kimball, publicly accused in 1997, currently is on trial in Santa Rosa, charged with raping a teen-age parishioner in 1977 and of lewd conduct with another in 1981. He has denied the charges.

 
 

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