Ex-Antioch Priest Calls Himself a 'Sick Puppy
In Taped Conversation, Robert Ponciroli Tells an Alleged Victim He Can't Remember Molestation
By Kristi Belcamino
West County Times
March 1, 2003
Former priest Robert Ponciroli says he prays for his victims every day. He's a sex addict, a "sick puppy" he told one of the former altar boys who has accused him of molestation.
But he has also told church officials that "others have done worse."
After a lengthy investigation, Ponciroli was arrested this week at his Florida retirement home on six felony counts of molestation. He is awaiting extradition to California on charges he molested altar boys in Antioch and Oakland.
The church had concerns that Ponciroli behaved inappropriately with boys as early as 1975, according to court records. That's when Bishop Floyd Begin wrote a memo to himself saying that a charge had been made that Ponciroli - then serving at St. Cornelius church in Richmond - appeared to be "too free with boys, especially altar boys," according to court records.
When confronted, Ponciroli told the Oakland Diocese his actions were nothing more than "harmless tickling."
His behavior had prompted a group of altar boys to sign a petition protesting the priest's practice of tickling and rubbing them, saying they were afraid to resist him because he would react violently, according to documents found in court records.
The bishop noted that the number of altar boys had dropped under Ponciroli from about 50 to 15.
Some priests the bishop spoke to seemed to think the complaints against Ponciroli came from parishioners who "hate him because of his lack of diplomacy and his fits of anger."
Soon after, the church transferred him to Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley.
Concerns continued to dog Ponciroli, court records show. In 1983, a letter from church officials was placed in his personnel file that said, "the way you relate to young boys has been a source of concern to fellow priests, parents and to the young men themselves. This is an area that definitely needs to be explored."
It wasn't until 1995, while he was pastor at St. Anne's in Byron, that Ponciroli was removed as a pastor and banned from working with children.
That was the year a former altar boy at St. Cornelius in Richmond reported that he had been abused in the 1970s by Ponciroli. Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Oakland Diocese, contacted the Richmond Police Department. Because the statute of limitations had expired, no charges were filed.
Shortly before that, a former altar boy at Our Lady of Grace in Castro Valley, where Ponciroli was pastor from 1975 to 1979, had also filed a complaint with the diocese about abuse.
On Feb. 9, 1995, Flannery wrote Ponciroli to say he was being removed from the priesthood because of the two complaints of sexual misconduct.
She told him he was assigned to report to a Maryland treatment center where priests were evaluated for psychological problems and addictions.
In 1996, court records show Ponciroli was asked to sign a "continuing care agreement" between himself and the Oakland Diocese. In the document, he agreed to 10 directives, including continuing weekly psychotherapy, attending sex addict meetings, avoiding unsupervised contact with youths and ministering to retired priests.
In 1999, Ponciroli retired and moved to Florida.
Antioch police began investigating Ponciroli last March after a 31-year-old man told police he had been molested from 1979 to 1981 while he was an altar boy at St. Ignatius Church. In May 2002, a 40-year-old former altar boy told Oakland police that the priest had molested him between 1973 and 1974 at Oakland's St. Frances de Sales Cathedral.
One of his alleged victims, unidentified in court records, called Ponciroli on the phone and the conversation was recorded as evidence.
During the conversation, the priest told the man he didn't remember molesting him, but apologized, saying that it could have happened.
"I apologize for what you went through. And I don't know if I did it or not. And I pray for you - my victims every day. You know, I'm - I was a sick man myself, though. I'm not trying to take any excuse for it. I didn't know any better, really."
Ponciroli said he was in therapy and undergoing treatment for sexual addiction.
"And I - I was - I am a sick puppy. I know that. I'm an addict. And that's why I'm trying to relive my life on that, too. Trying to take an addict off the street."
He didn't think he was doing anything wrong because he had been molested as a child.
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