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  S.J. Bishop Removes Two Convicted Priests

By Richard Scheinin and Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News [California]
June 22, 2002

Two local priests convicted of sex crimes with minors years ago are being stripped of their ministerial duties, San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath said Friday. The Rev. Leonel Noia and the Rev. Robert A. Gray will not "be involved in any kind of ministry ever again," he said.

Moving quickly to implement a "zero tolerance" sex-abuse policy adopted by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas last week, McGrath said Noia would never return to his job as pastor of San Jose's Five Wounds Portuguese National Church, where he served for 16 years. Noia, 55, is currently on sabbatical. Gray, 41, worked his final day Friday as head of the San Jose Diocese's cemeteries department, the bishop said. In keeping with the new policy set in Dallas, the men will never again "be able to function in public — say Mass, wear clerical garb, or present themselves as priests," said McGrath, who met with the two priests Tuesday.

In effect, the men will be retired. They will be allowed to celebrate Mass privately in their homes. "But if their parents die or a niece or nephew is getting married, they cannot perform the liturgy," McGrath said. "They can do nothing that's public at all."

Noia was reluctant to discuss the bishop's decision and said he didn't believe it could be final until the pope approved the new policy. But Noia said he welcomed the idea of living a "private life of prayer, as a hermit."

"I am prepared to accept whatever the decision is on the local level," Noia said. "I support the concept of zero tolerance, for the good of the church, even though it may carry a tremendous personal sacrifice for me."

Gray could not be reached for comment.

Also this week, McGrath told two other local clerics — both retired priests accused of sexually abusing minors in the 1980s or earlier — that any vestiges of their public lives as priests is now over. McGrath has declined to identify the two retired priests. He said one continues to live in the diocese.

The policy passed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops removes priests who molest minors from active ministry. It does not mandate the defrocking — or laicization, to use church parlance — of problem priests. A recommendation of laicization may be made by bishops in consultation with diocesan review boards. Ultimately, laicization must be approved by the Vatican.

McGrath said the diocese is "working out some kind of a severance package" for Noia and Gray and that "if either of them seeks laicization, that will be up to Rome to grant it or not."

Noia was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old boy during a 1976 camping trip. Gray was convicted of sexually abusing a teenage boy while teaching him karate in 1993. Both priests were sent to jail and received psychiatric treatment before returning to jobs in the diocese.

Following up on the Dallas meeting, McGrath began to arrange this week for the fingerprinting of hundreds of church employees and volunteers who work with minors in the diocese's 52 parishes. The national policy mandates that "dioceses will evaluate the background of all diocesan and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors."

The diocese has "a whole cadre of people who teach religion classes and they're marvelous people," said Roberta Ward, a spokeswoman. "But they'll probably have to be fingerprinted. Because are they around kids? Oh, yes."

Friday, McGrath met with priests to discuss the policy and its impact. "It didn't come as a surprise to them," he said.

According to one priest who attended, the bishop intends to go beyond the letter of the Dallas policy: "He's asking all of us to replace any solid wood doors in our confessionals or meeting rooms with soundproof glass doors," said the Rev. Kevin Joyce, dean of the diocese's southeast deanery, which includes 10 East Side parishes. "Wherever we're doing personal counseling, we must be visible from the outside."

The changes will be difficult, Joyce said, "but I think it's wise."

None of the other bishops in the Bay Area has moved as quickly as McGrath.

The Diocese of Oakland has no active priests affected by the policy. But it recently suspended a priest who was the subject of a fondling complaint that surfaced within the past two months, said Sister Barbara Flannery, the diocese chancellor.

Although authorities have declined to prosecute because the incident occurred more than 10 years ago, Flannery said the Oakland Diocese would conduct its own investigation. That could result in removing the priest permanently from ministry.

Officials of the San Francisco Archdiocese, which covers San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties, said no priest accused of misconduct is currently in a post that requires regular contact with minors. But communications director Maurice Healy said the archdiocese was not prepared to say whether any priests had been allowed to remain in other assignments after committing a past offense.

Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan recently promised to remove any priest who is guilty of misconduct with a child. But a diocesan representative said he didn't know if any priest who committed a past offense has been allowed to remain in the diocese up to now.

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

Correction:
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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