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  Aftershocks of Abuse Ripple
With Five Priests Accused, Fremont Especially Rocked Sex Scandal and the Catholic Church

By Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News
May 23, 2004

Some parishioners were upset this spring when Fremont's Corpus Christi Church took down a sign naming the parish center in honor of a long-dead priest. But it wasn't the first time.

Two years ago, Roman Catholic officials quietly removed a sign at Holy Spirit, another Fremont church, bearing the name of another pastor who had led that church decades ago. The two signs were removed for the same reason: The priest being honored had been accused of molesting children.

The nationwide scandal over sexual abuse has hit especially hard in Fremont, where at least five priests are accused of molesting children in the 1970s. Taken together, the cases make Fremont an especially powerful example of the continuing aftershocks caused by clergy sexual abuse.

Victims struggle to overcome emotional wounds. Longtime parishioners try to reconcile shocking allegations with their memories of beloved religious leaders. A woman reflects on her decision to avoid being married by a controversial pastor. A man wonders if the church had an unspoken policy of sending problem priests to what was then a blue-collar town, away from more affluent parishes in the Diocese of Oakland.

"It seems as if this was a dumping ground," said Dan McNevin, a 44-year-old real estate developer and one of three former Corpus Christi altar boys who have sued the diocese, alleging they were abused by the Rev. James Clark at the historic old church in Fremont's Niles district. Clark died in 1989.

Diocese officials say there was no such policy. Over the years, they said, they have logged credible allegations against priests at 22 of the nearly 90 parishes in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, including some in Oakland, Berkeley, Concord and Pinole.

"It's been spread out," said Sister Barbara Flannery, the diocese chancellor. "There is no plan behind it."

Experts on the church sex abuse scandal say it's difficult to compare statistics for one diocese or city with another, because the reported numbers are inconsistent and incomplete. Some say it may just be a terrible coincidence that five bad apples served in one town. Fremont had six parishes and about 100,000 residents in the 1970s; the population has more than doubled since then.

Powerful leader

Based on interviews, police reports and legal documents, the list of alleged abusive priests who served in Fremont includes Clark at Corpus Christi, Donald Broderson at St. Leonard parish, Stephen Kiesle and Robert Freitas, both at Santa Paula parish, and the late Msgr. Vincent Breen at Holy Spirit.

"I hadn't really thought it was concentrated here because it seems like it's happened everywhere," said Elizabeth Moore, 45, who made the difficult choice in 1980 to hold her wedding outside her family parish because of concerns about Breen.

Though Breen was a powerful community leader, some parishioners complained even in the 1970s that he fondled young girls. He died in 1986, after resigning from Holy Spirit in early 1982 to avoid prosecution on charges based on those complaints.

Moore had her wedding at Santa Paula church. The priest was Freitas. In 2002, he was charged with molesting a boy at Santa Paula in 1979.

"If only I had known I was walking away from the flames and into the fire," she wrote to her local paper after hearing about Freitas last year.

Faith is strong

Still, Moore said last month that her faith in God is strong. Priests are human, she added, and some may be falsely accused.

In the Freitas case, a family in a Hayward parish had complained to the diocese in 1977 after he made explicit sexual overtures to their teenage son, according to testimony in a civil trial last year, although diocese officials said they had no record of the complaint.

Freitas was later transferred to Santa Paula parish in Fremont, where he was eventually accused of molesting another youth in 1979. Freitas pleaded guilty when charges were filed in that case in 2002, although the conviction was thrown out because of the statute of limitations. But when the victim filed a civil lawsuit, the case ended in mid-trial after the diocese agreed to pay $1 million.

Freitas was not the only Santa Paula priest accused of abuse. Six women and at least one man filed lawsuits last year that allege Kiesle molested them as children in the early 1970s, when he was a seminarian at Santa Paula and a priest at St. Joseph parish in Pinole.

Their complaints also led to criminal charges against Kiesle in 2002. Kiesle denied the charges, which were dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Church officials said Kiesle was defrocked in 1981, after he was convicted of molesting a boy while serving at a Union City parish in 1978.

Santa Paula, which is in Fremont's Irvington district, recently merged with nearby St. Leonard to form a new parish called Our Lady of Guadalupe. The 57-year-old Kiesle pleaded no contest in January to molesting a child in the Sierra town of Truckee in 1995.

Forced to retire

The diocese also took action against Broderson. Flannery, the chancellor, said complaints led to Broderson's forced retirement in 1991. But records show the complaints went back to 1973, when a Hayward parishioner wrote to say the priest was behaving inappropriately with boys.

Last year, eight men filed lawsuits alleging that Broderson molested them in the 1960s and '70s, including two who say the priest abused them at Fremont's St. Leonard parish, where Broderson served from 1976-79.

Broderson's attorney has denied the allegations in court papers. Technically, Broderson and Freitas were not defrocked, but chancellor Flannery said both are forbidden to say Mass in public or perform other priestly functions.

Police reports also indicate that diocese officials were told about Breen long before he was forced to resign from Holy Spirit parish in Fremont's Centerville neighborhood.

His resignation came only after several girls and young women told Fremont police in 1981 that Breen had fondled them repeatedly over the years. Some also described an atmosphere in which girls warned each other not to be alone with the pastor.

One man told police he wrote a letter to the diocese in the mid-1970s, after several girls complained about Breen touching their breasts. Another woman told police she complained in person to the diocese after it happened to her. A nun who worked at Holy Spirit said she told the diocese about similar incidents in 1977, but no action was taken.

A 54-year-old nurse, who is suing the diocese, told the Mercury News that Breen fondled her in the early 1960s, when she was 12 and 13. She wept as she said the abuse left her with lifelong feelings of insecurity and distrust.

When the Breen allegations became public in 1982, diocese officials said they had heard only rumors they couldn't confirm. Flannery, the current chancellor, suggested the reports would be handled differently today.

"I think the church wasn't astute enough at that time, and we didn't understand the issue well enough to understand how difficult it is for victims to come forward," she said. "The church didn't know how to receive that kind of allegation, or how to nurture it and encourage people to come forward."

Pastor defended

Breen resigned in 1982 under an agreement with Alameda County authorities, who said they agreed not to prosecute in part to spare victims the ordeal of a trial. Even then, many people defended the pastor, who was influential in the larger Fremont community. Some insisted the charges were fabricated by disgruntled parishioners.

"People just didn't want to accept the fact that it could happen," said Bob Wasserman, then the police chief and now a city councilman.

It wasn't until 2002 that a former parishioner, Greg Bullough, who says Breen molested several of his former classmates, persuaded diocese officials to remove Breen's name from the parish center.

Similar aftershocks have reverberated since McNevin and two other men sued the diocese last year, alleging they were abused by Clark at Fremont's Corpus Christi parish in the 1970s. Some families still don't believe it.

"The timing just seems strange. I can see waiting to come forward, but not 30 years," said Anthony Avila, a 38-year-old investment banker who said Clark was a mentor and longtime family friend.

But Rev. Tim Stier, the current pastor at Corpus Christi, said he met with McNevin and found his story "very credible." Stier said he removed Clark's name from the parish center out of "compassion and sensitivity" for victims of sexual abuse.

Though he has tried to explain the decision, not everyone agrees with it.

"It is a very difficult thing for a parish," Stier said. "It's so hard to integrate that horrible knowledge with that public person we all remember."

FIVE PRIESTS ACCUSED

Five priests have been accused of molesting children while serving at Roman Catholic parishes in Fremont, during the 1970s:

Holy Spirit parish

Msgr. Vincent Breen was accused of fondling girls when he was pastor at Holy Spirit parish from 1954-82. He resigned under an agreement in which authorities said they wouldn't press criminal charges. He died in 1986. One woman is now suing the Diocese of Oakland.

ST. LEONARD PARISH

Donald Broderson is accused of molesting several boys, including two who say they were molested when he was at St. Leonard parish from 1976-79. Broderson retired in 1991 and is barred from public duties as a priest. Eight men are now suing him and the diocese.

Corpus Christi parish

The Rev. James Clark is accused of molesting three boys when he was pastor at Corpus Christi parish from 1965-83. Clark died in 1989. Lawsuits are pending against the diocese.

SANTA PAULA PARISH

Stephen Kiesle

is accused of molesting children at Santa Paula parish in the early 1970s. Lawsuits are pending. He was defrocked after his conviction for molesting a boy in Union City in 1978. He was convicted this year of molesting a girl in Truckee.

Joseph Freitas

was accused of molesting two boys from Santa Paula in the late 1970s. He pleaded guilty in a case that was dismissed because of statute of limitations. One lawsuit settled for $17 million. Freitas is barred from public duties as a priest.

 
 

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