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  East Bay Priest Held in Abuse of Boy in 1979
Fremont Man Claims Sexual Assault at 15

By Patrick May, Lisa Fernandez, Putsata Reang and Matthai Chakko
San Jose Mercury News
April 10, 2002

A longtime Roman Catholic priest and veteran of several East Bay churches has been charged with molesting a teenager 23 years ago when he served at the now-defunct Santa Paula Catholic Church in Fremont.

The arrest Monday came after the alleged victim, who is now 38 and developed AIDS in September, moved in with his parents in Fremont and told them he had been molested by the Rev. Robert E. Freitas years earlier.

Police set up a sting two weeks ago in which the man wore a wiretap and spent two hours at a cafe talking to Freitas. A police document examined by the Mercury News said the priest "confessed" to the molestation during that taped conversation.

Freitas, who will turn 52 next week, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court in Fremont on two felony counts of committing a lewd act on a minor, including oral copulation, in winter 1979.

Fremont police detective Teresa Martinez said investigators are also looking at the possibility that there are four additional victims -- all who claim abuse by Freitas about 20 years ago.

When the alleged victim of the 1979 molestation contacted church authorities last month at his mother's urging, they followed a 6-year-old policy and turned the allegation over to police.

The Rev. Paul Vassar, a spokesman for the Oakland Diocese, said Freitas, who has been a priest since 1972, was placed on a "restricted ministry" several years ago at St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in San Leandro.

The Rev. Paul Schmidt, diocese director of personnel, told police he knew of past civil suits alleging sexual abuse by Freitas, and kept the priest in "limbo" because no one knew what to do with him, documents show. Church officials finally placed Freitas with elderly nuns in a Fremont convent.

Asked if Freitas would have had any contact with young people, Vassar replied: "If a priest is caught stealing money, you don't let him near the collection plate."

Freitas was expected to post a $50,000 bond late Tuesday and could be released by early today.

After the arraignment, Freitas' lawyer, William Gagen, accused the diocese of being overzealous and swept up by the wave of national publicity about abusive priests by turning a 23-year-old case over to police.

He admitted his client had, in fact, "had problems" in the late 1970s, but said that he had undergone intensive therapy. Police records indicate Freitas underwent five years of therapy, including a stay at an East Coast counseling center for priests.

"This couldn't have come at a worse time," Gagen said. "I don't want to see him or any other priest or minister be punished for wrongdoings of others. This person had a problem, dealt with it, and unfortunately, it's coming out now. We're keenly aware of the publicity surrounding this issue."

Gagen said no criminal charges have ever been filed against Freitas.

The case is the latest in a series of revelations around the country involving Roman Catholic clergy and sex abuse. Already, one Jesuit brother in Los Gatos has pleaded guilty to a criminal charge that he abused one victim, and another priest implicated in the case has been moved from the center.

In addition, these two men, two other Jesuit clerics and the center itself are named in a civil lawsuit brought by the two victims seeking $10 million in damages. Court papers also indicate that three other men at the center may be implicated, and the suit alleges that some of the abuse dates back 30 years.

The alleged victim of the 1979 molestation first brought his complaint to his mother last year after he moved home to be with his family and deal with his AIDS, the police report says.

Learning that Freitas was still saying Mass at the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse in Fremont, the man became upset and began talking about the alleged abuse with his mother, who urged him to report the incidents.

In a statement, Bishop John S. Cummins said the alleged incidents took place while Freitas was serving as associate pastor at Santa Paula Church in Fremont, which has since merged with St. Leonard's Catholic Church. When the victim and his mother contacted the diocese, he said Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the diocese, immediately handed over the complaint to police.

Flannery, the diocese's point person for sexual-abuse cases among priests, is out of town until Thursday, and was not available to provide more details.

Police documents state that since the investigation, which began March 12, Freitas was sent to work at the AIDS Project of the East Bay in Oakland. Cummins said Freitas was immediately removed as chaplain at the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse and forbidden to say Mass or perform any other priestly functions at St. Alphonsus, where he had been living. He promised church officials he would cooperate with police.

Bishop's statement

"The sadness of the accusation weighs heavily on all of us," said Cummins, whose diocese in recent years has achieved a reputation as being more aggressive than others in dealing with sexual abuse allegations.

In the last six years, the diocese has referred a dozen cases involving six priests to authorities. Cummins formally apologized two years ago to victims of sexual abuse by priests, and two weeks ago the diocese conducted a service of apology to the victims.

The charges against Freitas stem from two alleged incidents on the same day in 1979.

According to police documents, when the man was 15, Freitas told him to bring collection money to the priest's bedroom, where the boy saw pornographic magazines and the priest performed oral sex on him. The teen told police he felt curious about homosexuality at the time and was both intrigued and disgusted at the priest's actions, finally pushing him away.

The man who accused Freitas of the 1979 molestation was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But when contacted by the Mercury News, the victim's mother said she's astounded at the number of cases involving Catholic priests being charged with child molestation.

She declined to comment on the details of her son's case, but said she's glad he spoke out.

"As you're raised Catholic, you have this reverence for priests, that they could do no wrong," she said. "I'm Catholic. I'm ashamed the church has made coverups."

Specifically regarding Freitas, the mother told police that she was sickened every time she saw the priest after she learned what he had allegedly done to her son. "He's a man we're supposed to trust."

 
 

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