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  Former Priest Faces Molestation Charges
He Served in 8 Bay Area Churches from 1969 until 1995

By Charlie Goodyear
San Francisco Chronicle
February 27, 2003

A former Catholic priest assigned to eight churches in the Bay Area from 1969 until his removal in 1995 from the Diocese of Oakland was arrested Wednesday and charged with molesting two altar boys two decades ago.

Robert Ponciroli, 66, was taken into custody at his home in Brooksville, Fla., and was being held in lieu of $600,000 bail. He is expected to be brought to Contra Costa County to face criminal charges after an extradition hearing today.

Authorities learned of the allegations against Ponciroli last March, after the Oakland diocese reported a complaint of sexual abuse from a former altar boy at St. Ignatius Church in Antioch. Oakland police received a similar complaint from another victim -- a former altar boy at St. Frances De Sales Cathedral in Oakland -- a few months later.

"We had a one-year statute of limitations to file this case, and we were delighted to get it filed under the deadline," said Antioch Police Sgt. Scott Willerford.

Investigators say Ponciroli may have abused other victims when he was assigned to the churches and parishes in San Leandro, Richmond, Castro Valley, Brentwood, Byron and a second one in Oakland.

The alleged abuse dates back to the 1970s and early 1980s, when some parishioners at St. Ignatius complained about Ponciroli's reported habit of constantly tickling the children in his church, court documents state.

From 1979 to 1981, Ponciroli fondled and masturbated a 9-year-old altar boy at his home after asking the youth to help with chores at the priest's home in Antioch, according to documents filed in Contra Costa Superior Court.

The victim, now 32, recalled Ponciroli as "verbally abusive" and said the priest termed the molestations "punishment" for the boy, according to court documents. "He would swear and raise his voice often," the victim recalled in a statement filed in court.

The victim kept silent about the incidents for more than a decade, then contacted Sister Barbara Flannery at the Oakland diocese last year, records show. Flannery reported the incidents to police and also revealed that Ponciroli had been suspected of abuse for many years, according to court documents.

No records detailing the alleged abuse of the victim in Oakland were included in court documents, and police were not available for comment.

The East Bay diocese, which covers Alameda and Contra Costa counties, believed Ponciroli had molested at least six victims, and the diocese was involved in a 1994 settlement involving Ponciroli, court documents state. The following year, Ponciroli was removed from the ministry, court records show. Flannery could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Antioch police say they believe other victims exist but so far have identified two cases that can be prosecuted under a state law allowing criminal charges in old molest cases if they involve significant sexual contact.

Authorities identified the eight local churches where Ponciroli served as a priest as St. Leander's in San Leandro; St. Frances De Sales Cathedral; St. Cornelius in Richmond; Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley; St. Ignatius; St. Jarlath Church in Oakland; Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brentwood; and St. Anne's in Byron.

Police are asking anyone with information about Ponciroli to contact them.

Willerford said detectives from Antioch had traveled to Florida last year to interview Ponciroli but did not get a confession from him. "He did cooperate somewhat, giving us some statements," Willerford added. "But there was no outright admission."

 
 

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