Molested at St. Anthony's
By Andrew Rice
[Note: This article was scanned from a copy of the original newspaper in the Ray & Anne Higgins Archive. We thank them for their assistance. BA.org is solely responsible for this web posting. See also Silence hid evil secret, by Victor Inzunza and Morgan Green, Santa Barbara News-Press, December 5, 1993.]
BETWEEN 1964 AND 1987, when St. Anthony's Seminary High School closed because of financial problems, a total of 44 friars taught classes there. A report released Monday night by an independent board of inquiry formed to investigate allegations of sexual abuse there revealed that 11 of those men sexually abused boys at the school, as well as their siblings, some as young as seven years old. A 12th friar is suspected of "grooming" a student for a sexual relationship but did not go through with it. Most of the victims were high school students studying to become priests.
Fifty victims, parents, and concerned parishioners attended the meeting where the report was presented Monday night at the Goleta Community Center. With the 11 members of the board of inquiry lined up behind a long table it looked like a '90s version of Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. In the audience were reporters from all the network news shows as well as TV's A Current Affair.
The report comes four years after the first victim came forward to press charges against Father Philip Wolfe for sex crimes he committed in 1987. As a result, Wolfe was jailed for six months. Since then, the trickle of revelations has turned into a torrent.
Nine months ago, under pressure from victims and parents, the Franciscan Order established an independent board to figure out what really happened. Last spring the board, which included three therapists, one parent of a victim, a lawyer, and several priests, mailed almost 900 letters to former students searching for others who had been abused. To help others come forward the board has also set up an 800 number. The board's most recent count shows that 34 men came forward to reveal that they were molested while at the seminary, and another was approached by a priest but not molested.
AN ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR: Newspaper clips from the 1960s and '70s portray St. Anthony's Seminary as a serious yet wholesome and nurturing environment where, in the words of one article, students "almost never miss their eight hours of sleep."
The 72-page document describes something much different. The testimony of those involved shows how an atmosphere of fear and spiritual blackmail that cloaked the campus enabled abuse to go on for 23 years. Though no single friar was present all that time, there was always at least one offending friar on staff. At one point there were five on a staff of about eight. Still, despite the gravity and brazenness of the abuse, victims say fear that their parents and authorities would not believe them kept them from coming forward.
The report is frank and graphic in its depiction of what went on at the school. One priest used to come into the student dormitory at night, where he caressed and masturbated students, and on at least one occasion, tried to sodomize a student while he slept. Another friar seduced a student into a yearlong relationship during which they went on trips together and had sex nearly every night. Other former students told of being forced to submit to "hernia examinations" during which a friar would call them into his room alone and fondle their genitals under the guise of treating them for physical ailments, even though there was a doctor on call.
Another priest took hundreds of nude photographs of students and their younger siblings in the seminary and surrounding grounds.
Those contacted by the board report that physical abuse was also rampant. To discipline students, friars routinely broke rulers over student's backs or backhanded them so hard that one student who bore much of the priests' wrath was voted "most beaten" by his classmates. The atmosphere at the school sometimes led to incidents in which students sexually and physically abused other students.
WHAT NOW? As revealing as the report is, for many involved it is not explicit enough. Where, they ask, are these priests now? What is their HIV status? And most importantly, who are they, and what steps can be taken to ensure they don't abuse others again?
Father Joseph Chinnici, the Provincial of the Province of Santa Barbara, and the head of the Franciscan order for seven Western states, claims the remaining priests have all been removed from contact with minors, are being monitored, and have received or are still receiving treatment as sex offenders. None work in Santa Barbara anymore. However, parents and victims are not satisfied and won't be until the priests' identities are made public.
Since the school closed in 1987 and the statute of limitations on sexual abuse is six years, most of these cases stand little chance of being prosecuted. Some of the victims and parents argue that these men could be charged for crimes they may have committed after leaving St. Anthony's, crimes for which the statute of limitations hasn't run out. "I think we need to go into each parish and investigate where they have been," urged one mother of a victim.
So far two of the priests have been identified, both by their victims. One, Father Wolfe, was prosecuted, sent to jail, and defrocked. For the other, Father Robert Van Handel, the former choir director and rector, the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution had expired. Van Handel was removed from a church in San Francisco in 1992. Another of the 12 died recently.
Chinnici said the Franciscans did not reveal the names of the remaining nine because to do so, they fear, would allow victims to be identified. The Provincial said that the smallness of the school made it difficult to maintain the victims' privacy. Others, however, close to the case speculate that the order is afraid of defamation suits by priests it identified. Chinnici did not deny that possibility, but said there is nothing stopping the victims from publicly naming their abusers.
That may be only a matter of time. The order has spent almost $90,000 to pay for counseling of students who came forth; the counseling, offered for free, will continue. The Franciscans have settled a few cases with former students out of court for an undisclosed amount. It's likely, however, that somebody will take a case to court. Then, "Those names will come out I'm sure," said one mother whose sons were abused by two priests. "It will just take a little time."
She contends that what has been revealed is not the last chapter in the St Anthony's saga. "I don't think we've seen all the predators yet, and there are a lot of other victims who haven't been able to come forth." The story made news all over the country, and "now I bet that 800 number is ringing," she said, as former students who weren't reached by the board hear about it.
As part of its report, the board of inquiry recommended more careful screening of candidates for the priesthood, creation of a permanent panel to investigate sexual abuse charges, and continued free counseling for victims. The Franciscan order promised to implement the recommendations.
Meanwhile the victims and their families struggle to deal with the blow dealt them when the institution they had faith in failed them. "This is a torn-up group of people," said a family member of a victim. "[The friars] think they can charisma [sic] all over the place and it will all be okay, but now I can’t even walk in the church door." This lifelong Catholic had once hoped to see her sons become priests.
One victim put it even more bluntly. "I believe," he told the
board, that "God has a twisted sense of humor and he uses me for
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