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  A Priest's Legacy; William Kraft Built Two Local Parishes from Nothing, but Left behind Accusations That He Sexually Abused Children

By Sandi Dolbee and Susan Gembrowski
San Diego Union-Tribune
July 28, 2002

On a late summer afternoon, fighting the ravages of diabetes, Monsignor William Armstrong Kraft received a pair of visitors in his hospital room.

One was his bishop. The other was a man who said he had been sexually abused as a teen-ager by the priest.

Tearfully, the middle-aged man reminded Kraft of who he was, that he used to go to his parish, St. Therese in Del Cerro, in the 1960s.

He reminded him of their friendship and how Kraft violated this friendship in a most terrible way.

The bishop asked the ailing priest if he would like to respond.

"He could remember this man," San Diego Bishop Robert Brom recounted in a recent interview. "He could remember his family."

As the man stood there waiting for an admission, Kraft said he could not remember the incident.

Then the 75-year-old Kraft said that if he had caused this man any harm, he was sorry.

The next month, on Sept. 12, 2001, Kraft died. He took whatever secrets he had to his grave. But they have not rested there.

The alleged victim would receive a $250,000 settlement, including $100,000 from Kraft's estate. Since then, other men and at least one woman have contacted an Orange County attorney with accusations against Kraft of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred when they were minors.

Kraft is one of hundreds of priests, living and dead, who are part of a national scandal of abuse rocking the Roman Catholic Church. It is a scandal wrought from incidents hidden for decades, dating to a time when church leaders would quietly transfer errant priests to another parish and pray the problems would go away.

But like shadows at the remains of the day, the stories are beginning to emerge.

Did Kraft sexually molest young people? If he did, how could he have gotten away with it all those years? And what does this mean for a church that is both beloved and besieged?

* * *

There was a time in America when there was no greater glory for a good Catholic family than to offer up a son to wear the Roman collar.

Perhaps that is why, in the small family chapel in the mausoleum at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, where Kraft and his relatives are buried, his parents' plaques have these lines under their names: "Mother of a priest," reads one; "Father of a priest," reads the other.

From the beginning, Kraft's life was centered on the Catholic Church.

He was born into a Catholic family in Rochester, N.Y., attended Catholic schools and went to a preparatory seminary in his teens.

He finished his studies at Immaculate Heart Seminary in El Cajon, and a few years after Kraft was ordained in 1951, his wealthy parents followed him from the East, settling in Rancho Santa Fe.

Elizabeth Kraft would refer to him as "Father" in conversations she had about her son. She and her husband, William Andrew Kraft, a retired chief engineer for Eastman Kodak, were among his biggest boosters, donating time and money to the churches where he served.

Kraft had been a priest for only five years when he was assigned to start St. Therese Parish in Del Cerro. At that time, it often took priests more than a dozen years to be given a parish of their own. He was 30 years old and an energetic man with a penchant for organizing.

While his fledgling congregation celebrated Mass at the Mission San Diego de Alcala, Kraft raised the money to buy 13 acres near Navajo Road and College Avenue.

He did it, in part, by marshaling a men's group to visit Catholics in Del Cerro and neighboring Allied Gardens. His directive, said one former parishioner: "Be sure and observe whether they have wall-to-wall carpeting, new cars. Those are the ones we are going to hit."

Kraft was a strict, formal Catholic. But what some regarded as holiness, others saw as arrogance.

"Kraft was not collaborative," remembered one parishioner. "He pretty much wanted to run the show."

His sermons were fiery. During one homily, his shouting was so loud that he woke a small boy who had dozed off in the pews.

Yet other priests said he had a playful side. He was a portly man with dark hair who liked to eat and to imitate people, a skill he perfected.

Although the priest lived at the rectory at St. Therese, his parents bought a two-story house with a swimming pool on Cibola Road, not far from the church. They kept their house in Rancho Santa Fe, but wanted this home for their son, said Monsignor Frederick Florek, who is now St. Therese's pastor and who worked as an assistant to Kraft for nearly two years in the late 1960s.

That way, Florek said, Kraft "could live in the parish he loved -- and he loved St. Therese."

But in 1969, after 14 years of building up St. Therese, Kraft was reassigned to oversee Holy Cross Cemetery -- and then sent to Mira Mesa to start Good Shepherd Parish.

Why was he moved out of the parish?

"We heard through the grapevine that there was another side to him," Florek said. "The full story was never known to us."

The answer may have something to do with a report that wouldn't surface until years later. In 1988, The San Diego Union disclosed that when Kraft was at St. Therese, several parents wrote to then-Bishop Francis Furey and accused the priest of indecent conduct with their children.

One parent, interviewed by San Diego private investigator Jean Liuzzi, said that despite the complaints, the diocese did nothing.

Kraft's supporters do not believe the accusations.

"It just seems to me to be a bunch of garbage," said Eleanor Matthews, who raised her family at St. Therese.

Likewise, several priests who worked with him, including Florek, said they never saw anything suspicious. Those who asked Kraft got flat denials, although one priest added that he never pushed Kraft for details.

In 1970, while assigned to Good Shepherd in Mira Mesa, Kraft rallied parishioners for the second time in his career to build a parish from nothing. After his father's death later that year, his mother remained a loyal supporter, often arriving for Mass in a beige Cadillac and wearing a fur coat.

Kraft stayed at Good Shepherd for seven years before the bishop reassigned him to St. Charles Borromeo, an established parish in Point Loma.

He wouldn't stay there long. A little more than a year later, in late 1978, Kraft was suddenly removed amid parishioners' accusations of mishandling church funds.

Even though then-Bishop Leo Maher pulled Kraft from the church, he stood by him, promoting him to director of stewardship, in charge of raising money for the diocese. It was a job Kraft would keep the rest of Maher's tenure.

Over the years, it became clear that many in the diocese prized Kraft's Midas touch when it came to fund raising. Liuzzi, the private investigator who was looking into allegations against Kraft, ran into this herself when one diocesan officer, a priest who is now dead, asked her to go easy on him.

"We need his fund raising," she said that official told her at a meeting in the 1980s.

Maher continued to support Kraft in 1988, three years after the priest was elevated to the rank of monsignor, when a 27-year-old convicted thief told a psychologist that he had been sexually molested by Kraft at Good Shepherd. The man said the abuse began when he was 9 and continued until he was 17, and that he had lived with Kraft at his Del Cerro home.

Kraft dismissed the accusation, saying the man was just trying to get sympathy and stay out of prison.

"The denial is enough as long as the bishop doesn't have any indication to think otherwise," Maher's spokesman said at the time.

* * *

In 1991, Kraft's situation would change.

Bishop Robert Brom, who had replaced a retiring Maher the year before, told Kraft he wanted to reorganize the fund-raising office. The new bishop also brought up the controversies that had swirled around the monsignor for years.

"I was clear about what I called unanswered questions about parish administration and personal relationships," recounted Brom, the former bishop of Duluth, Minn. "I asked him if he knew what I was talking about. He did."

He waited for Kraft to respond and was not satisfied with what he heard. Because of that lack of clarity, the bishop told Kraft he was not willing to reassign him to a parish or recommend him for an assignment to another diocese.

Kraft retired in July 1991 at the age of 65.

It would not be the last time the two would meet.

In 1997, Kraft again was facing questions from Brom. This time, the diocese had been contacted directly by a man who said he was abused by Kraft when he was a teen-ager in the 1960s at St. Therese.

The alleged victim "did not at all want to pursue any further action but simply wanted to be assured that Monsignor Kraft was receiving any help that he needed and no one else would be at risk," Brom said.

When the bishop confronted the retired priest, he got neither an admission nor a denial. Brom wanted clarity. He got nuances.

"Once again, Monsignor Kraft did not give me straight answers regarding this allegation," Brom said. " . . . I'd get lots of references of never wanting to cause a scandal, never wanting to hurt or harm anybody. But when I would come back to just yes or no, I would get less than straight answers."

The bishop suggested that Kraft get counseling. That's when Kraft said something rather remarkable, Brom said.

"He said, 'Well, I've been in counseling since 1973 and there has been no abuse in my life during this time at all,' " Brom recalled.

Kraft also said he intended to remain in counseling for the rest of his life.

But what Kraft didn't say was whether there was abuse before he went into counseling.

"That was my problem," Brom said.

He was in a quandary. There was no record of sexual misconduct in Kraft's files, said Brom, and there was no admission or other independent verification.

Brom decided to restrict Kraft's ministry in retirement. While other retired priests are often used for vacation replacement and to help out in local churches, Brom told Kraft he was not to celebrate Mass without the church's pastor being present and was not to be alone with minors.

Then, in August 2001, a second man told Brom that he also had been molested by Kraft when he was a teen-ager in the 1960s.

Kraft was ill from his diabetes, so Brom visited him in his Del Cerro home, the one he inherited from his parents. The bishop informed Kraft of the second accusation and told him that he would be prohibited from ministry.

Meanwhile, Brom offered the accuser an opportunity to meet with the monsignor, "toward a healing moment, a moment of reconciliation." The man accepted.

The stage was set for that late summer meeting in the final weeks of Kraft's life, when the ailing priest was in Mercy Hospital & Medical Center.

Brom went to see Kraft in the hospital, where, he said, the monsignor agreed to the proposed meeting -- along with something else.

"He said, 'If I can help in any way,' " recalled Brom. "I said, 'Do you have personal resources, financial resources, that would help us to address this?' He said, 'I would be happy to cooperate there.' "

That afternoon, Brom and the accuser, whom Brom would not name to protect his privacy, went to Kraft's hospital room. It was an emotional meeting. Once, the alleged victim had to step out of the room to gather himself.

"He went through the relationship. He went through what happened. He went through the consequences," Brom said.

Kraft told them he could not remember the incident.

"He said, 'If I have caused this young man any harm, I am certainly sorry,' " Brom recounted. " 'If I have been a scandal to the church,' and even added, 'Bishop, if I have made your life and your ministry more difficult, I am very, very sorry.' "

Sensing the meeting was ending, Brom asked if they could pray together. The monsignor put his hands out. The bishop took one hand and the man took the other one. Hand in hand, the three formed a circle.

"I prayed a prayer of healing for the one who had been hurt. I prayed a prayer for monsignor, who couldn't remember everything and who never wanted to hurt anyone and was sorry if he had," Brom said. "I kept using his vocabulary."

Then they prayed the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, speaking the words in unison.

In December 2001, three months after Kraft died, the diocese wrote a check for $250,000 to the alleged victim. According to church officials, the diocese and its insurance company each contributed $75,000, with $100,000 coming from Kraft's estate. No lawsuit was filed and there was no admission of liability.

Kraft has had a trust since 1981, according to a probate court file, although the value of that trust was not listed. Josep Torroella, Kraft's longtime personal assistant, was made trustee in August 2001, the same month as that hospital meeting.

Torroella refused to be interviewed for this story.

"Father is dead," he said on the telephone from the Del Cerro house. "Leave him alone."

* * *

Kraft's story is not over.

Orange County attorney John Manly, who represented the man who received the $250,000 settlement, said more people claiming to be Kraft's victims have contacted him recently. The accusations range from fondling to rape and go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the accusers were minors.

How many are there?

"More than three and less than 10," Manly said.

At least one is a female.

This month, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation that extends the statute of limitations on civil suits in such abuse cases. Manly would not predict if the new allegations will result in lawsuits, although he said he believes the diocese should be held responsible for what allegedly happened.

"It is clear to me that Father Kraft was a serial predator," Manly said.

With Kraft's death, the burden of the allegations falls on the living. This includes the priests who, when interviewed for this story, anguished over the guilt-by-association that has become rampant in a national scandal of abuse.

"Don't lose sight of all the good priests who were never accused and never did anything wrong," one said.

Florek, the pastor at St. Therese, where Kraft spent 14 years, acknowledged that it will take a long time before Catholics have the same trust in their religious leaders as they once did.

"As a priest, how do we handle it?" Florek said. "We pray."

 
 

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