Abuse in the Church; Sexual-Abuse Lawsuits Target Former Inland Priest
Men Feel Lost in the Shuffle; They Blame Dioceses for Transferring Problem Cleric
By Michael Fisher
Press Enterprise [Riverside]
February 22, 2004
Despite complaints that the Rev. Edward Anthony Rodrigue molested boys, Catholic leaders allowed the troubled priest to work at unsuspecting churches in Ontario, Loma Linda, El Centro and elsewhere for more than 14 years, according to a series of recently filed lawsuits.
During the past year, at least 15 men have sued the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino charging that they failed to protect them from Rodrigue, whom they accuse of sexually abusing them as young boys between 1967 and 1979. Rodrigue, who told authorities he molested as many as 120 boys as a priest, remains in prison over a 1998 conviction, and his own brother says he would testify against his release.
The accusers, former altar boys, claim diocesan leaders shuffled Rodrigue among at least 11 churches and several psychological treatment centers in 17 years, even after Rodrigue pleaded no contest in 1979 to misdemeanor child-molestation charges. They say Rodrigue exemplifies how Catholic leaders nationwide now face claims that they shifted sexually abusive clerics among parishes.
"I can't think of any other word than betrayal," said Jacob Olivas, 34, who says Rodrigue repeatedly molested him when he was a 7-year-old at St. George Catholic Church and School in Ontario.
"They knew," said Olivas, who is suing the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino. "They did nothing to stop him."
The Diocese of San Diego managed the Catholic parishes in Riverside and San Bernardino counties until the San Bernardino Diocese was created in late 1978. Rodrigio Valdivia, chancellor and San Diego Diocese spokesman, declined to comment last month, saying his diocese gave Rodrigue's personnel file to the Inland diocese in 1978.
Valdivia did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past two weeks after San Bernardino Diocese officials reported that they had provided the San Diego Diocese with a copy of Rodrigue's file in early February.
The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese, disputes criticisms that his diocese mismanaged Rodrigue, noting that the priest had worked at St. George's for more than a year before the Inland diocese was created.
Lincoln said there was nothing in Rodrigue's personnel file in 1978 suggesting the priest was a threat to children, even though the San Diego Diocese had sent Rodrigue to a Massachusetts psychological treatment center two years earlier.
Lincoln said his diocese did a good job managing Rodrigue, barring him from being around children and sending him to three treatment centers after the cleric's 1979 no-contest plea to sex-crimes. But he acknowledged that the diocese assigned Rodrigue to St. Joseph the Worker Church in Loma Linda in 1981 before removing him from the priesthood a year later.
"The luxury of hindsight is perfect vision," Lincoln said.
"Twenty-five years ago, people, and not just priests, were sent for treatment and then re-entered society. The potentially devastating effects of molestation were not fully recognized. It's easy to look back and see errors."
Rodrigue appears to be a "textbook example" of a priest who was passed between parishes, said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide victim advocacy and support group. Dioceses across the country moved accused priests between churches to avoid scandals in past years, Clohessy said.
"That's a lot of moves," Clohessy said of Rodrigue's transfers.
"That would be very unusual for a priest, but not very unusual for an abusive priest."
The Rev. Paul Shanley, a former Boston priest at the center of the nationwide clergy-abuse scandal, was transferred in 1990 to the San Bernardino Diocese from the Boston Archdiocese, where he had been dogged by decades of sexual-abuse complaints. Shanley was removed three years later when his past came to light. He faces child-rape charges in Massachusetts.
Rodrigue, now 67 and in state prison in Corcoran, Calif., declined to be interviewed. "I am unable to comment about these things because of my own feelings and reasons known only to myself," he wrote in a letter to The Press-Enterprise.
Known as Father Tony to his parishioners, the former priest is serving a 10-year sentence after he pleaded no contest in 1998 to molesting an 11-year-old developmentally disabled boy in Highland a year earlier.
As part of that investigation, Rodrigue admitted to detectives that he had molested five or six boys annually during his 20 years as a priest, according to a copy of a 1997 San Bernardino County sheriff's report outlining Rodrigue's responses to a polygraph test.
"Rodrigue said he never admitted he had a problem with molesting boys until he was about 40 years old," according to the report. "He said he never spoke to the boys about it, and most of the boys were altar boys."
Rodrigue's estimate that he abused up to 120 boys makes him one of the worst offenders in the sexual misconduct scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for two years, said Timothy Hale, attorney for Olivas and three other men who accuse Rodrigue of abusing them.
Hale said Rodrigue was accused of sexual misconduct in the late 1960s, but San Diego diocesan leaders simply transferred the priest between unsuspecting churches, even after he was sent for counseling.
"What they went through, none of it had to happen," Hale said of his Ontario clients. "This should have stopped 15 years before it got to them. Instead of drawing a line, they (diocesan leaders) drew a fence around their diocese and their reputation and they excluded these children from that protection."
At least 26 lawsuits filed in the past two years accuse 12 one-time Inland priests or religious brothers of sexual misconduct since the mid-1950s. Rodrigue is accused of molestation in at least 10 lawsuits involving 15 men. The cases target one or both of the dioceses.
The lawsuits are part of an estimated 850 clergy sexual-abuse lawsuits filed statewide in 2003 under a now-expired law that had temporarily allowed victims to sue their abusers' employers decades after the alleged abuse occurred. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge will hear all of the Southern California lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
The lawsuits naming Rodrigue accuse the priest of abusing children in Encinitas, Calexico, Barstow, El Centro and Ontario. The allegations range from fondling to oral copulation. The names of some of the accusers are listed in the court documents but are being withheld by The Press-Enterprise, which does not routinely identify people who may have been sexual assault victims. Olivas agreed to discuss his accusations publicly.
The complaints reveal similarities in Rodrigue's alleged conduct. Many of the 15 accusers say the priest gained the trust of altar boys by giving them cigarettes, alcohol and showing them pornographic movies in his bedroom. At least one man accuses Rodrigue of giving him marijuana.
The accusers say other priests and church workers knew, and in at least one instance, witnessed, Rodrigue's misconduct but did nothing to stop him.
According to one lawsuit, a man claims he rejected Rodrigue's advances in 1975, leading the priest to threaten to dismiss him as an altar boy. The boy twice tried to report Rodrigue to San Diego's former bishop, Leo T. Maher, who has since died.
"He was basically rebuffed," said the man's attorney, Michael Zimmer. "He left messages for the bishop indicating that there was a priest out there hurting altar boys and he received no response."
Lincoln said there is no mention of the telephone messages in Rodrigue's personnel file.
Although diocesan officials say they have no record of complaints against Rodrigue prior to 1979, they confirm he was sent in 1976 to the now-defunct House of Affirmation in Massachusetts. The center treated priests with psychological problems, including pedophilia.
Lincoln said he does not know why Rodrigue was sent to the center. Rodrigue's personnel file does describe the type of therapy Rodrigue underwent, Lincoln said, noting such facilities also helped priests suffering from depression, anxiety or other psychological problems.
But Margaret Schettler, who in 1976 was a 22-year-old volunteer at Our Lady of Soledad in Coachella, recalls being warned about Rodrigue, who briefly worked at the church before leaving for treatment.
"The co-pastor told me he was there because he had molested little boys at the parish he came from, and he was not supposed to be around boys," said Schettler. "While he was there, kids would come to the door asking for him and I would send them away."
Schettler is haunted by the face of that insistent 10-year-old boy who rode his bike to the rectory to try to see Father Tony. The priest, the boy told her, had promised to buy him ice cream.
Rodrigue helped conduct Mass and performed some baptisms, said Schettler, who sometimes dined or watched TV with the priest.
"He was someone who seemed very unhappy. On occasions when I saw him outside the rectory with groups of kids around him, he seemed to be in his element, smiling, happy. It was quite a contrast," she said.
Schettler said she never saw Rodrigue do anything inappropriate with a child, but no one seemed to be monitoring the priest who would vanish for days at a time.
"I felt very frustrated. Father Tony seemed to come and go as he pleased," Schettler said.
Zimmer said the lack of oversight illustrates how the San Diego diocese failed to manage Rodrigue properly.
"Sending him out to Coachella and saying 'be careful' is not doing a good job. You defrock him and get him the hell out of there. You report him to the police," Zimmer said.
After four months at the House of Affirmation, Rodrigue was sent to a renewal program in Oakland, Lincoln said.
Rodrigue's younger brother, Tom, said diocesan leaders should have removed his brother from the priesthood instead.
"The church has a saying: You never put yourself in a position where you have an occasion to sin. They put an alcoholic as the bartender. You just don't do that. That's insane," Tom Rodrigue said.
Concerned that his brother is a threat to children, Tom Rodrigue has offered to testify against his brother's release when the former priest becomes eligible for parole, possibly in 2006.
"It may sound like I hate my brother and I don't hate him. I hate the things that he has done over the years," he said.
ASSIGNED TO ST. GEORGE
In mid-1977, the San Diego diocese assigned Rodrigue to St. George's without warning parishioners of his recent treatment, according to attorneys for five men who accuse the priest of molesting them at that Ontario church. Rodrigue helped conduct Mass and run the program for altar boys.
Valdivia, the San Diego Diocese spokesman, said it would not surprise him to learn the diocese reassigned a priest who was "given a clean bill of health by psychiatric or medical professionals."
In 1979, after a boy threatened to report Rodrigue, the priest told church officials he was experiencing "sexual problems," that things were "out of control," and that he was in "deep trouble," according to court documents filed by Hale.
About that time, Ontario police began investigating Rodrigue for abusing children. Rodrigue pleaded no contest that year to misdemeanor sex charges and was placed on three years' probation. Lincoln said the terms of Rodrigue's probation placed him under the supervision of Bishop Phillip Straling, the San Bernardino Diocese's first bishop.
Straling sent Rodrigue to Sierra Royal Hospital in Azusa for one year, and then to the now-closed retreat that had been run by Servants of the Paraclete religious order in Cherry Valley. Rodrigue remained at the facility for troubled priests until March 1981, Lincoln said.
"It is only after a-year-and-a-half of therapy that Bishop Straling then sends him (Rodrigue) to St. Joseph the Worker in Loma Linda," Lincoln said. "From the time he pleaded no contest (in 1979) to the end of his priesthood, he was directed to have no unsupervised contact with minor children."
Lincoln said it is unlikely that St. Joseph's parishioners were told of Rodrigue's past. Rodrigue was removed from the church after 18 months.
"His removal had nothing to do with any accusations of child molestation," Lincoln said. "He had severe personality defects."
Straling sent Rodrigue to another Paraclete center in Jemez, N.M., for a psychological exam, then returned him to the Cherry Valley facility. Rodrigue moved out on his own in 1985 but Straling required him to continue therapy for another six years, Lincoln said.
In 1992, The Vatican granted Rodrigue's request to be laicized, or voluntarily removed from the priesthood. Such requests are extremely rare.
Straling, transferred to Reno, Nev., in 1995, did not respond to requests seeking comment. Last year, Straling told The Press-Enterprise he took "appropriate steps" to deal with sexual abuse accusations against Inland priests.
"I think we did a pretty good job," he said. "When we became aware of those problems, we dealt with them and we dealt with them firmly."
Lincoln said that under current diocese policies, Rodrigue would have been removed from the priesthood after his misdemeanor conviction in 1979.
Theresa Riester, a former parishioner at St. George's, said by phone that she is hurt by the accusations against Rodrigue. The Midwestern woman praises the cleric for counseling her through depression in 1979.
"I still would trust him with anything," Riester, 52, who has cerebral palsy. "Father Tony accepted me as myself. He looked beyond my disability and saw what I was capable of doing."
The Rev. Edward Anthony Rodrigue
At least 15 men have sued the dioceses of San Diego and San Bernardino, accusing church leaders of failing to protect them from The Rev. Edward Anthony Rodrigue, whom they accuse of sexually abusing them as young boys.
1936 San Diego, born
1954 San Diego, attended St. Francis Seminary
1962 San Diego, ordained
1963: La Jolla, Mary Star of the Sea
1965: Lakeside, Our Lady of Perpetual Help
1967: Encinitas, St. John the Evangelist
1968: Calexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe
1967: Encintas, 1 accuser•
1968-70: Calexico, Barstow, 3 accusers•
1972: Barstow, St. Joseph
1974: Eagle Mountain, St. Augustine
1975: Poway, St. Michael
1975: El Centro, Our Lady of Guadalupe
1976: Coachella, Our Lady of Soledad
1976: Massachusetts, House of Affirmation
1977: Oakland, Second Vatican Institute
1977: Ontario, St. George
1979: Azusa, Sierra Royal Hospital
1972-76: El Centro, 5 accusers•
1976: Calexico, 1 accuser•
1977-79 Ontario, 5 accusers•
1979: CONVICTED, Ontario, two counts of misdemeanor child molestation
1980: Cherry Valley, Servants of the Paraclete center
1981: Loma Linda, St. Joseph the Worker
1982: Jemez, New Mexico, Servants of the Paraclete center
1982-85: Cherry Valley, Servants of the Paraclete center
1998 to present: State prison
1998: Convicted, Highland, two counts of felony child molestation
•Accusations raised in lawsuits filed in 2003
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