|10 Priests in Lawsuits
Still on Job
L.A. Archdiocese says it lacks evidence of abuse. Cases test limits of the 'zero tolerance' policy.
By William Lobdell and Jean Guccione
At least 10 priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles remain in parish ministry despite lawsuits filed late last year that accuse them of molesting children.
Among the priests are some of the archdiocese's most prominent clerics, including Msgr. Richard A. Loomis, former head of clergy who oversaw misconduct allegations against priests; Msgr. Patrick Reilly in Burbank; and Father Michael J. Carroll, who was voted Walnut's man of the year last week.
Church leaders justified their action by citing lack of evidence to support the allegations and, in some cases, their inability to interview the victims. Announcements of the accusations were made in the congregations of the priests last Sunday.
Each cleric has denied wrongdoing, and none are under criminal investigation.
The cases test the limits of the Vatican's "zero tolerance" policy against priestly misconduct and point to the conflicts the church faces in policing itself.
Archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg said that although many past claims of sexual abuse have been credible, "not all allegations are true or immediately credible."
"And there are those that are demonstrably false," he said. "To take someone out of ministry when allegations are false or there is a severe lack of first- or even second-hand information is not only unjust to the person accused, it also diminishes the impact of those claims which are credible and true."
The archdiocese's stance has infuriated victims' advocates, who say that once again the church has put the protection of priests over the safety of children.
"The problem is not false allegations," said John Manly, a Costa Mesa attorney whose firm represents about 80 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests. "The problem is child rape. When are the bishops going to get that through their thick ecclesiastical heads?"
The debate over how to treat the priests named in lawsuits comes as the archdiocese is also battling prosecutors and civil litigants over access to personnel files on accused priests.
The church has argued that the files are confidential and protected from disclosure by law; prosecutors insist that the documents are necessary to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing.
The priests still in active ministry are among about 200 Los Angeles-area clerics named in an avalanche of litigation in 2003.
The lawsuits were filed after California lifted for one year the statute of limitations for older cases of sexual abuse involving minors. About 500 people sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese last year, out of 800 suits statewide.
Asked about the accusations, Loomis, who was vicar for clergy from 1996 to 2000 said: "I have not done anything wrong."
Speaking of his accuser, he added, "I do not recall this person, and I did not molest him."
Similarly, Manuel Sanchez of Sacred Heart Church in Pomona said Friday that he did not even know his accuser. "I am completely innocent of the charges," the priest said. He said he learned of "this terrible accusation" six months ago and believed that his accuser was either "looking for money or he sincerely confused me with another person."
Another of the priests, James M. Ford of San Roque Church in Santa Barbara, said he was "shocked when I heard of this lawsuit." Ford said he was "deeply hurt by this allegation of 35 years ago. It's completely and absolutely false."
Edward Dober of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Paramount released a statement denying the allegation. "The archdiocese did not find it credible, and there is no basis for the lawsuit," the statement said.
The other priests still on active ministry, each of whom denied the allegations personally or through an attorney, are Sean Cronin of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge, Walter Fernando of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Pasadena, Richard Martini of Transfiguration Church in Los Angeles and Samuel Orellana of Presentation of Mary Church, also in L.A.
In some cases, the status of the clerics facing allegations exposes a contentious and largely unexplored area of the church's zero-tolerance policy, which was adopted in 2002 and calls for removing priests against whom credible allegations of molestation have been made. The policy is silent about a cleric's status between the time an allegation is lodged and a church investigation is completed.
Should a priest, accused of a decades-old molestation, be immediately placed on administrative leave until an inquiry is complete? Or should he remain at his post until the church determines that there is sufficient evidence to remove him?
"In some cases, it's a very, very shaky allegation by someone who's not very credible," said Father Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. "On the other hand … we want to be very sensitive to the victims."
Nor does the policy define "sufficient evidence," the standard of proof needed to remove a priest from ministry under the reformed policy.
"It all hangs on what's credible evidence, and that's up to interpretation," said Father Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly magazine America.
The 194 U.S. dioceses operate independently and report only to the Vatican. Some dioceses, New Orleans, for example, follow investigative procedures similar to those in Los Angeles. In others, including the Diocese of Orange, officials immediately place accused priests on administrative leave until inquiries are completed. Similar policies are in force in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Lafayette, La.
The Los Angeles Archdiocese's decision to keep accused priests in ministry has put further strain on the already acrimonious relationship between the church hierarchy and alleged victims and their advocates.
"I wouldn't trust the church to investigate anything," said Father Thomas P. Doyle, who co-wrote a report to U.S. bishops in 1985 warning of problems with abusive priests. "From history, we'd know it's self-serving. They shouldn't be investigating; someone should be investigating them."
Victims' advocates say filing a lawsuit should provide enough evidence to justify placing a priest on leave. California law requires an independent therapist to attest to the merits of a plaintiff's allegations before a sexual abuse lawsuit can be filed. After that, a judge must decide if the suit has merit enough to proceed.
"One must convince both an attorney and a therapist before filing," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "So one could argue that church officials ought to give more weight and credence to an allegation that is publicly presented in civil courts over one that's privately presented" in a church office.
SNAP members in Los Angeles plan to protest the archdiocese's policy Sunday at the parishes of the accused priests.
"Church officials don't believe the victims, the police, mental health professionals and judges," said Mary Grant, regional director of the group. "I don't believe church officials are in a dilemma. They know exactly what they are doing in stonewalling and protecting priests."
But others said that without hard evidence, placing a priest on administrative leave was fundamentally unfair and could lead to witch hunts.
"The way priests are investigated and handled and treated is unconscionable," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a conservative group with 350,000 members. "Bishops protect themselves [from public outcry] at the expense of the accused priests. They are selling them down the river."
Attorney Donald Steier, who represents eight of the 10 accused priests still in Los Angeles Archdiocese parishes, said a single allegation of abuse — without corroborating evidence — shouldn't be enough to put a clergyman on leave.
"It doesn't appear that they are a current risk to anybody, so unless there is more to it, there's still a certain presumption [of innocence] in this country," he said. Steier said that the required psychological reports are filed under seal and that neither the archdiocese nor the priests can review them.
Some of the announcements read in the parishes of accused priests last weekend include the most detailed explanations of the abuse allegations made by the archdiocese to date.
In half the cases, parishioners were told that the archdiocese's Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board, which consists of 11 laypeople and two others, investigated and found no evidence of misconduct. In the other cases, the board did not recommend that the accusers be placed on administrative leave.
In a few cases, for instance, the archdiocese said it had been unable
to interview the accuser and considered the allegations "hearsay
in nature," lacking the kind of detail needed for the archdiocese
to conduct a thorough investigation and for the priest to present a reasonable
Excerpts from the Catholic Church's Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People
ARTICLE 5. We repeat the words of our Holy Father in his address to the cardinals of the United States and conference officers: "There is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young."
When an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or a deacon is received, a preliminary investigation … will be initiated and conducted promptly and objectively. If this investigation so indicates, the diocesan/eparchial bishop will both notify the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and … relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties.
Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Priests accused of abuse in lawsuits
These 10 Roman Catholic priests were accused of sexual abuse in civil lawsuits filed last year. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has reviewed the allegations, and all remain in parish ministry.
- Accused of molesting a teenage girl from 1967-71 at St. Anselm Parish in Los Angeles.
- He denied the allegation. The Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board of
the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles recommended he remain in
- Accused of molesting two children between 1972 and 1980 while at St. Genevieve Parish in Panorama City and St. Monica Parish in Santa Monica.
- Accused of fondling a boy at Queen of the Angels Junior Seminary in Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991.
- He denied the allegations. The board found "no evidence of misconduct."
Parishioners were told Dober had the archdiocese's "complete confidence."
- Accused of molesting a woman in 1981 at St. Hilary Parish in Pico Rivera.
- He denied the allegations. Los Angeles police said he made incriminating
statements during a taped conversation with the alleged victim. The board
recommended he remain in parish ministry and stated it had insufficient
information to investigate.
- Accused of molesting a teenager from about 1968 to 1971 at an unspecified parish in the city of Orange.
- He denied the allegation. The board found it was "not appropriate" to place him on administrative leave "based on information currently available."
- Accused of molesting a boy between 1969 and 1971 when he taught at a Los Angeles-area Catholic high school.
- He denied the allegation. The board found "no credible evidence
of misconduct has been presented to us." Parishioners were told that
Loomis had the archdiocese's "complete confidence."
- Accused of fondling a boy at Queen of the Angels Junior Seminary in Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991.
- He denied the allegations, and the board found "no evidence of misconduct." Parishioners were told Martini had the archdiocese's "complete confidence."
- Accused of misconduct in 1987 at Sagrado Corazon Parish in Compton.
- He denied the allegation and said he did not remember the accuser. The board recommended he remain in the ministry pending further investigation.
- Accused of misconduct between 1980 and 1984 while at Sacred Heart Parish in Covina.
- Accused of molesting a child in 1981 while pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Pomona.
- The board found that "the evidence did not support the charges."
Sources: Archdiocese of Los Angeles and lawsuits. Photos from Archdiocese of Los Angeles 2002 Catholic Directory.
Original material copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.