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  Church Responds to Abuse Suit

By David Ryan
Napa Valley Register
January 6, 2004

More than two weeks after claims of sexual abuse surfaced against Monsignor Joseph Alzugaray of St. Apollinaris Catholic Church, his lawyer and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa are fighting back, saying the priest was cleared of wrongdoing in previous inquiries initiated by church officials in Santa Rosa and Los Angeles.

Santa Rosa Diocese spokeswoman Deirdre Frontczak said an investigation performed in 2002 by a diocese independent review board found no evidence he sexually abused a Southern California girl. The diocese oversees St. Apollinaris and other Catholic churches in Napa County.

A Dec. 17 lawsuit, Romo v. Doe, was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by Erin Brady and 16 other alleged victims of sexual abuse. The complaint names Alzugaray and 26 other priests, alleging the clerics used their positions in the church hierarchy to create an environment that protected child molesters. Brady was the only one to level claims against Alzugaray.

Church officials in Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.

Brady claims Alzugaray abused her during a three-year period starting in 1967, when she was 8 years old. She said the priest pulled her away from recess at the Immaculate Conception private school for secluded reading sessions that developed into episodes of repeated sexual abuse.

Brady didn't come forward and accuse the priest of wrongdoing until more than 20 years later. She said she repressed memories of the abuse for many years, despite experiencing panic attacks triggered by certain sights, such as a pipe or black curly hair.

In 1993 she decided to inform the church about the allegations after becoming involved with a Napa spiritual group she refused to name.

"I really don't want to bring that into it because that particular community is in Napa," she said. "What he did to me doesn't have anything to do with them ... They have treated me well, as well as they could and (the allegations) are not their fault."

Brady said church officials in Los Angeles performed two internal investigations, but said they believed Alzugaray was innocent.

"They never helped me," she said. "They, to my knowledge, never investigated anything."

Frontczak said there was no evidence to support Brady's claims.

"When Alzugaray came to this diocese it was investigated again ... he of course denies the claim," she said. "What I can tell you is that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles investigated the allegations at least twice and found no evidence to support them."

Alzugaray referred comment to his Los Angeles-based Lawyer, Neil Papiano, who said he is preparing a countersuit.

"There is nothing I can find anywhere that can support this claim against Monsignor Alzugaray," he said.

Decades-old claims

Romo v. Doe is part of the effort of a consortium of about 30 lawyers around the state who worked to meet a Dec. 31, 2003, deadline to file decades-old claims of sexual abuse against the church the in civil courts, according to Lawrence Drivon. He said he was acting as a coordinator for Romo v. Doe and for most of the 400 abuse claims against Catholic priests in California.

Alzugaray is the third person affiliated with St. Apollinaris to face such allegations, although he is the only one in the current round of lawsuits. In 2002, a former parish priest, Rev. Francis J. Ford, a Franciscan friar, was accused of molesting an altar boy when the priest was serving in Oregon in the early 1960s. Ford served at St. Apollinaris Church for one year in the late 1960s.

He died in Santa Barbara in 1985. Tim Barnett, the former altar boy, is reportedly in his fifties.

Rev. Melvin Jurisich, province secretary for the Franciscans in Oakland, said the friars settled the lawsuit in October. The Oakland office oversees parishes in Oregon.

"The man's dead," Jurisich said. "There was nothing to admit. There was nothing in his files. The people who lived with him are all dead. There was no way we could verify one way or another."

David Slader, Barnett's Portland, Ore.-based attorney, said he could not discuss whether his client received money from the church.

He said revealing whether clients came into financial settlements can hurt their interests.

"You'd be surprised about the number of great business opportunities that are presented" he said. "There are a significant number of people who take advantage of people who come into a lot of money."

Earlier this year, a former math teacher at St. Apollinaris was accused of molesting a student in the late 1960s at a Berkeley school.

Brother Francis Verngren died in December, but not before the lawsuit filed against him by Phoenix resident Gene Reedy was settled in September.

Verngren left St. Apollinaris about two years ago.

Reedy's attorney, Mary Alexander of San Francisco, said her client was paid $1 million, but that Verngren and the church admitted no wrongdoing.

Alzugaray's defenders spoke out on the eve of the official release of an audit that determines compliance with Catholic Church's "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

The charter was approved at a June 2002 meeting of Catholic Bishops, which supposed to sensitize the Catholic Church to claims of sexual abuse.

The independent audit is supposed to check if each diocese is following the charter.

Frontczak said the Santa Rosa Diocese passed the audit, performed by the Gavin Group, an independent company which includes former members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

She said part of the reason the diocese passed was the existence of its independent review board, which investigated Brady's claims in 2002.

The board is comprised of nine members, with two representatives from the church, including Monsignor John Brenkle of the St. Helena Catholic Church. Other members include a retired court judge, a psychologist, a social worker and a victim representative.

Mary Grant, Southern California leader of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a friend of Brady's, questioned the independence of church review boards.

"If what seems to be historically true is that (the church) covered up and protected these priests, and then you ask them on their honor to tell the truth? It kind of strains the average person's idea of credibility ... everything is always done in secrecy."

 
 

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