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  S.J. Priests' Cases Could Test Proposed Policy
Returning to Parish after Sex Convictions May Be Banned

By Brandon Bailey and Richard Scheinin
San Jose Mercury News [California]
May 26, 2002

The sins of two local priests will be weighing on the mind of San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath next month, when he joins the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas to debate a policy of "zero tolerance" for clergy who molest children.

In 1976, two young brothers testified that the Rev. Leonel Noia showed them pornography, offered them a sexual stimulant and rubbed their genitals during a camping trip to Mount Madonna. In 1993, a teenage boy told police that the Rev. Robert A. Gray had offered him martinis, showed him a porn video and rubbed the area around his genitals during private massage sessions.

Both men were convicted of sex crimes, sent to jail and got psychiatric treatment. Both returned to work. Neither has been accused of further crimes. And today, the bishop says, they are the only priests he oversees who have convictions for molesting children. Their stories, pieced together from interviews and court records, provide a detailed look at how local church officials have dealt with priests who abused children in the past. But under a policy that McGrath and other bishops appear likely to adopt in June, the two cases would be treated quite differently.

"People want to be absolutely assured, as much as anyone can be on anything, that their children are safe," McGrath told the Mercury News last week.

McGrath said he wants to keep an open mind until the conference in Dallas, where the bishops are expected to discuss whether a priest who commits a single offense should be restricted from certain duties, retired from all duties, or expelled from the priesthood altogether. They will also consider whether to apply the new rules only to future cases, or retroactively to priests who have committed abuse in the past.

But the San Jose bishop signaled that he is leaning toward retiring any priest who has molested a child, including Noia and Gray.

"It's increasingly difficult for me, as I think about it, pray about it, and listen to people talk about it, to believe that we can do anything less," McGrath said.

Even Noia -- who said he is grateful for getting a second chance -- acknowledged that, in light of recent scandals, it may no longer be possible to put a priest with his record back in a parish.

"Things have gone astray so much," Noia said. "It's a matter of restoring credibility."

Noia recently began what officials say is a long-scheduled sabbatical, after 16 years at San Jose's Five Wounds Portuguese National Church.

Taking a stand* Victims grapple with issue of trust Many victims, parents, ordinary Catholics and clergy want the bishops to take a strong stance.

Priests who molest children "need to be removed from any ministerial position," said Ray Peltier, San Jose representative for a national support group called SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Members of the clergy are given so much trust, he added, that "it's too much of a risk to put them in that position again."

Yet others point out that forgiveness is an essential aspect of the Christian faith.

Tony Goulart, a longtime parishioner at Five Wounds, said he believes most people at the church know about Noia's past and would still welcome him back as their pastor.

"It was dealt with and he served his time," said Goulart, a 47-year-old contractor, who said Noia should not be viewed in the same way as priests who have victimized children over and over.

Without excusing what happened, Goulart said, "I don't think you can just condemn a person for having some kind of a weakness once in their life."

Around the nation, cases have come to light in which church officials simply transferred priests to new parishes after they were accused of misconduct with children. Often the accusations weren't reported to police until years later.

Based on court records and interviews, it appears the actions of Noia and Gray were discovered by police before they came to the attention of church officials. After they were prosecuted and convicted, each man spent time in jail, got psychiatric treatment and served a period of court-supervised probation before he was permitted to resume working as a priest.

Noia was first returned to a parish by officials in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which included San Jose in the 1970s. But Bishop Pierre DuMaine, who led the San Jose diocese for nearly two decades after it split off from San Francisco in 1981, made the subsequent assignments for Noia and Gray.

DuMaine, who retired in 1999, declined to explain his decisions.

"Those are personnel matters, and there are many more dimensions than the media knows or needs to know," he said. "I don't see any useful purpose to discussing that."

While church officials were reluctant to discuss the two cases, many in the diocese have been aware of them.

The 55-year-old Noia has long been a central figure in the local Portuguese-American community. Five Wounds church is an important institution in that community; its two white towers stand tall and graceful over Santa Clara Street, just off Highway 101.

But in 1976, Noia was a young priest in hot water with his superiors. After starting his career at St. Patrick Parish in San Jose, he was suspended from duties as an assistant pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Mountain View. Church officials said there had been a dispute over doctrine. Noia, who emigrated from the Azores, says he walked out because the pastor was prejudiced against Portuguese immigrants.

Court records show Noia was still on suspension when he invited two boys, with their parents' permission, to join him on a three-day camping trip at Mount Madonna in southern Santa Clara County.

The boys, brothers aged 12 and 14, later testified that during the outing Noia discussed sex with them, showed them a pornographic magazine and invited them to inhale a drug later identified as amyl nitrate -- which is sometimes used to enhance sexual sensations.

After retiring to Noia's tent, the 12-year-old told authorities, the priest massaged him and rubbed his testicles while the 14-year-old slept in a nearby truck. The next night, the older boy testified, Noia masturbated him and performed oral sex on him.

"I couldn't say anything because I was afraid," the 14-year-old said in court.

Finally, he said he told the priest he needed to use the bathroom and left the tent.

"I guess God must have heard me," the boy added. "I was praying."

On the second morning, after each boy learned what had happened to the other, they decided to seek help from a family that was camping nearby. The family called sheriff's deputies, who arrested the priest after they talked with the boys and found pornography and amyl nitrate in the priest's truck.

'I was drunk'* Priest insists no sexual contact Noia pleaded no contest to one felony charge of lewd conduct with the younger brother; prosecutors dismissed a charge of molesting the second boy. He was sentenced to six months in jail and five years' probation, psychiatric evaluation and treatment.

Even after his plea, however, a probation officer reported in 1976 that Noia insisted he never had sexual contact with either boy. In an interview this month, Noia said he never "consciously or intentionally" molested the youngsters.

"I was drunk at that time and when you're drunk, you don't know who or what you touch," Noia said. At the time, he said, he had gotten in the habit of drinking heavily after serving with another priest who was an alcoholic. Noia denied bringing pornography or drugs on the camping trip.

But even while insisting that he doesn't remember what happened, Noia said he felt remorse for "whatever hurt that was unconsciously done."

He also said he abhors the idea of molesting a child. "Done with intention or not, it's a desecration of the person, and I condemn that."

After 20 months of probation, therapy and psychiatric evaluations, the Archdiocese of San Francisco put Noia back in a parish. Three years later, he finished probation and successfully petitioned to clear his record, so he does not have to register as a sex offender.

Church authorities say that Noia was required to disclose his record at each new assignment. When he arrived in 1978 at St. Julie Billiart Parish in San Jose, Noia said the pastor introduced him to parishioners, then read aloud a news article about his arrest. The pastor also announced that a copy of the court file was available in the rectory.

The same thing occurred when Noia transferred in 1982 to St. Anthony Parish in New Almaden. By the time Noia transferred to Five Wounds in 1985, he said he made the announcement himself.

The experience taught him humility, Noia said. "As ugly, as sinful, as criminal as that incident was, I am a better priest today, 26 years later, than I would have been if none of that had happened."

Noia said he has never had any sexual interest in boys or teenagers, before or since the incident. He also said he never felt the need for additional therapy, after he completed his court-ordered treatment.

But he added that he has taken steps to ensure that no one could misinterpret his actions -- never changing clothes in a room where altar boys were preparing for a service, for example, and keeping children at arm's length while blessing their foreheads.

Although he agreed to speak with a reporter, Noia said he wished the incident didn't have to be brought up again.

"I have fulfilled all the requirements of the law, and I have lived in a faithful and dignified manner for 26 years, which I think is something for you to keep in mind," he said.

Later in the interview, he appeared close to tears as he said: "In 29 years as a priest, I have never denied absolution to any single person."

Forgiveness, he explained, is important to a priest.

Some years ago, Noia said, he reconciled with the family of the two boys and apologized for any harm that he caused.

One of the boys confirmed that. Now in his 30s, he declined comment except to say that church authorities had offered little comfort to his family and refused to meet with his father after the incident. But he said he has forgiven Noia and added: "I do feel that people can change."

Today, parishioners at Five Wounds describe Noia as a dedicated and compassionate church leader. During his 16 years as pastor, they say, he rebuilt the academic program at the parish school and led a major campaign to renovate the historic church building.

"He's very giving, and in my view he's a very good priest," said Arnaldo Matos, 42, who works in real estate and is chairman of the parish finance committee. Though he had heard that Noia once molested a boy, Matos said, "It's hard to believe."

Getting assistance* Therapy helps curb behavior Many medical experts today believe that sexual attraction to children is like an addiction: With extensive treatment, offenders can be taught to keep their behavior in check, although the underlying urges may never be cured.

Therapists also say it's important for offenders to recognize their problem and avoid situations where they might encounter potential victims.

"If someone has a history of trouble with alcohol, they can learn to manage those impulses, to cope and be sober," said Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychologist who has treated priests with sexual problems. "But you still don't want them to work as a bartender."

But in the past, according to Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who studies sexual disorders at Johns Hopkins University, some doctors routinely advised church authorities that priests who had molested children could be treated and safely returned to duty.

McGrath said his predecessors were given that advice about Noia and Gray. But the bishop acknowledged that Gray's case, coming 17 years after Noia's, was handled differently in part because knowledge and attitudes had shifted over the years.

Court records show that Gray, now 41, was originally charged with fondling three boys in their upper teens whom he had taught karate in the early 1990s. He had begun offering lessons when he was an assistant pastor at St. Christopher Parish in San Jose, and continued when he moved to St. Justin Parish in Santa Clara.

Church officials said they didn't learn of a problem with Gray until 1993, when a boy from St. Christopher told San Jose police that Gray touched him in a way that made him uncomfortable.

Police took statements from boys on Gray's karate team. Some reported nothing wrong; others said Gray's training program included private massage sessions in which they undressed and he rubbed the skin around their genitals.

Gray pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge of annoying or molesting a minor; in exchange, authorities dismissed two other counts. Judge Jerome Brock sentenced him to 160 days in Santa Clara County jail and five years' probation, during which Gray was ordered to obtain psychiatric counseling and stay away from minors. He also had to register as a sex offender with local police.

Gray declined to speak with a reporter. The student who first complained declined comment through his father.

But in 1993, a probation officer reported the youth was especially upset because of the way Gray had abused the authority he held as a priest and a karate instructor.

"Bob's actions wounded me mentally," the victim wrote in a 1993 letter to Judge Brock. "I also felt very naive that I could be manipulated so easily and let my life be controlled by this man. And finally I felt ashamed and dirty."

The youth said Gray should be reduced to performing "minimal religious work" in which he wouldn't be able to victimize other boys.

According to court files, Gray enrolled in an intensive therapy program at St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., a hospital that specializes in treating clergy for sexual problems.

But unlike Noia, Gray was not given a permanent assignment in a parish when he returned in 1995. Instead, Gray has been an administrator for the diocese, most recently in the cemeteries department.

Church officials have allowed Gray to help celebrate Mass at two local parishes -- St. John the Baptist in Milpitas and Church of the Resurrection in Sunnyvale -- as often as once or twice a week. He also has presided over weddings. Officials say he was given those duties because they don't involve individual contact with minors.

Changing climate* Parish learns of priest's history Gray was required to disclose his criminal history to co-workers at the diocese, McGrath said, but there was no announcement to members of the parishes where Gray was saying Mass.

In hindsight, the bishop said last week, it would have been better to tell them.

Some parishioners did learn about Gray by word of mouth, said Rev. Bob Leger, pastor at St. John the Baptist. He added: "I'm confident that the Bob Gray that I know now would not do what took place in the past."

Two months ago, however, McGrath said he asked Gray to stop saying Mass.

"The climate had changed," the bishop said last week. "People do not seem to be willing to have a priest with that kind of background in a parish."

Contact Brandon Bailey at bbailey@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5022. Contact Richard Scheinin at rscheinin@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5069.

Articles that appeared on the front page on May 26, June 5 and June 22 and in the Family & Religion section on June 1 incorrectly described the sentence imposed on the Rev. Robert A. Gray, who pleaded no contest in 1993 to molesting a minor. He was sentenced to 160 days in jail and five years of probation, but the jail term was suspended as part of his probation.

 
 

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