|Mater Dei's Image
Highly Regarded High School Dealing with Charges of Covering Up Past Sexual Abuse
By Jim Hinch
SANTA ANA, CA, Sept. 14 - On a hazy summer morning, officials at Mater Dei High School stood on a makeshift stage and warmly addressed rows of squirming fifth graders. The kids, who had just graduated from a high school-preparation outreach program to low-income Santa Ana neighborhoods, beamed in their dress-up clothes.
But the officials were nervous.
Mater Dei is arguably at a summit in its 53-year history, raising $40 million to overhaul its aging campus and educating a diverse array of leaders in a changing Orange County. But a string of sex-abuse scandals has sparked fierce debate over the school's reputation as the most successful Catholic high school in the western United States.
In July, shortly before the outreach graduation ceremony, former student Pablo Espinoza filed a lawsuit alleging that he and other students were groomed for sex and abused by some of the school's most prominent administrators in the 1970s.
Earlier that month, another former student, Joelle Casteix, sued, saying school officials covered up for a choir director who had sex with her for two years, gave her a venereal disease and impregnated her in the 1980s.
Now, officials at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which oversees Mater Dei, have confirmed that three faculty members - a counselor, a basketball coach and a choir director - were asked to leave the school in the 1990s after allegations surfaced that they sexually abused students.
Although officials said they report all credible allegations of child abuse to authorities, county social workers said they have no record of such reports, and two alleged victims said school officials told them to keep quiet.
Alleged victims and other critics say such allegations show a pattern of concealing sex scandals to maintain the school's cherished image.
Parents, students, alumni and other supporters of the school say they are grieved that Mater Dei's substantial accomplishments are being unfairly obscured by a few unproven allegations fueled by wider hysteria over molestation in the Catholic Church.
"I think it's unfortunate this is happening. It gives Mater Dei a bad name," 1999 graduate Erin Mills said. "I thought it was a great school because you had such an awesome sense of family and everyone is so close. All my friends went on to excellent colleges, the faculty cared about the students. We had a close relationship with them. We'd come visit them at lunch and recess and after school. They were such dedicated faculty."
But former student Katherine McIntosh said classmates in the mid-1990s talked constantly of inappropriate advances and relationships between teachers and students: "Mater Dei in a sense is a good school. ... But Mater Dei is the high school that wants to be the big Catholic high school and the football team, and if that means covering things up, they do it."
Patrick Murphy, former principal and now school president, said the controversy hasn't affected fund raising. Parents and donors to the school "realize (that alleged abuse) happened a long time ago and everyone here had nothing to do with that," he said.
But after inquiries by The Register, Diocese Chancellor Shirl Giacomi said that in 1996, 1997 and 1999, church officials reported the following Mater Dei staff members to the Children and Family Services Division of Orange County's Social Services Agency, which investigates allegations of child abuse:
Former counselor Bernie Balsis, who in 1995 allegedly called 15-year-old Camilla Overbeek into his office, hugged her, put his hand up her shirt and told her he loved her, according to Overbeek, a 1998 Mater Dei graduate.
Former junior varsity basketball coach Jeff Andrade, who allegedly conducted a sexual relationship with a student in 1997, diocese officials said.
Former choir director Larry Stukenholtz, accused of conducting a sexual relationship with a student in 1999, diocese officials said.
There have been no allegations of sexual abuse occurring at Mater Dei after 1999.
Murphy, whose 13-year tenure as principal began in 1990, said he has dismissed "fewer than five" staff members after accusations of sexual abuse. By law, he said, he cannot comment on personnel matters of individual employees. Shortly after arriving at the school, he instituted a policy requiring staff members to immediately report all credible molestation allegations to authorities, he said.
But officials at the Children and Family Services Division said they have no record that Balsis, Andrade or Stukenholtz were reported. It's possible that a report was made but did not turn up in a search of the agency database, officials said.
Giacomi said she did not know why the three reports did not appear to turn up in county records. She said that Frances Clare, the current school principal, looked in the three men's personnel files and found records that reports were made. Giacomi was not chancellor at that time.
Alleged victims of Andrade and Stukenholtz were not identified. None of the men accused of abuse could be reached for comment.
Overbeek said that school officials encouraged her to keep quiet about Balsis.
"It started a huge interrogation of my entire life," Overbeek said of the alleged incident with Balsis. "He was never asked to go on a leave of absence while the investigation occurred. I was told it would remain confidential. ... There was a long time where I was constantly being interviewed (by school officials). They wanted to know about my home life. Mostly they tried to focus on what happened and whether I was telling the truth. Law enforcement was never notified."
Joelle Casteix, who sued the district this summer, said she was also told to keep quiet about her alleged relationship with former choir director Tom Hodgman. Diocese officials said they reported Hodgman to authorities and asked him to leave the school when they learned of the alleged relationship. Hodgman, reached soon after the suit was filed, denied its allegations and said he left the school voluntarily because of stress.
Since 1985, state law has required teachers and other school officials to immediately report to social workers credible sex-abuse allegations. Debbie Kroner, social-services spokeswoman, said social workers follow up all such reports by interviewing alleged victims and others involved within one week of a report. Overbeek and Casteix said they were never interviewed by social workers or other authorities.
"We have notified authorities in cases pertaining to (alleged faculty sex abuse)," Murphy said. "That's the law. We must report that."
Overbeek disagreed. "What the public doesn't know is that the Catholic Church is not only covering for its priests but also its teachers and counselors," she said.
Such allegations come at a delicate time for Mater Dei, a jewel in the Catholic Church's crown whose graduates include a bishop, leaders of major local corporations, star athletes and prominent Washington, D.C., lawyers and bureaucrats.
Major corporations and foundations, including the Allergan Foundation of Irvine, Coca Cola Corp. and Santa Ana's First American Title Corp., have donated to the ongoing renovation of the school's library, student center, basketball gym and performing arts center.
Colleges routinely scout the school's powerhouse basketball and football teams, where players have won numerous state and national championships. Seniors are gearing up to apply to top universities. Last year, 99 percent of graduates went to college, some to Ivy League universities.
And the school is continuing outreach to its local community. Several years ago, some parents petitioned to move Mater Dei to Irvine or Tustin. But retired Bishop Norman McFarland insisted that the school remain in Santa Ana as an educational resource to surrounding low-income neighborhoods.
Through summer preparation programs like the Junior Monarchs, whose graduates gathered on the quad this summer, 500 of the school's 2,200 students are from Santa Ana. School demographics, with 60 percent of students white, are only slightly less diverse than Orange County's.
Alumni said they are sad and angry that a few sex-abuse claims threaten the reputation of a school that shaped their lives with high expectations and clear moral teaching.
"If this was really happening, if it was really a hotbed (of sex abuse), don't you think some of the kids would have known?" said Sharon Vargas, a 1976 graduate who spoke in defense of former Vice Principal John Merino, named as a molester in one of the July lawsuits. Merino, through his lawyer, denies the suit's allegations.
"I feel a lot of commitment to (Merino) because I feel like the person I am today is because he believed in me and encouraged me to reach that potential," said Vargas. "The expectations for (students') behavior were very high, and he conducted himself the same way."
Said Maurice Sanchez, an Irvine lawyer who graduated in 1974 and is now friends with Orange County Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto, a Mater Dei alumnus: "It's not just your school where they get you through and warehouse you for four years till you leave. There was an effort to instill values in you, and for the most part it worked."
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