Suit alleges sexual abuse by popular former Servite priest and swim coach

Orange County Register [Anaheim, CA]

June 22, 2022

By Scott M. Reid

The school’s aquatic center is named after Father Kevin Fitzpatrick. Now a lawsuit alleges school officials should have known “Father Fitz” was a sexual predator

Nearly 50 years later, it remains the most pivotal moment of a life full of heartache and emptiness.

It was the spring of 1976 and a 13-year-old eighth-grade boy was taking an entrance exam at Servite High School, the Catholic all-boys school in Anaheim.

The boy was caught cheating off a friend during the math part of the exam.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” the man, now 60, recalled in a recent interview. “That was the most important thing to me. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.”

The man paused.

“I don’t know how different my life would have become,” he said, “if I had just been thrown out of that test.”

Instead he was told pick up his things and go out into the hallway. It was there he first encountered Father Kevin Fitzpatrick, the school’s swimming and water polo coach, and an algebra and religion teacher.

“He literally grabbed me and said ‘you’re going to be fine,’” the man recalled.

Fitzpatrick took the boy to his office in an annex between the school’s main building and its athletic facilities and molested him, according to an interview and court filings. Afterward Fitzpatrick asked the boy if he really wanted to attend Servite.

“Yes,” the man recalled saying. “It meant the world to me. He said, ‘I can help you. Get cleaned up.’”

The boy was admitted to Servite, where Fitzpatrick molested and sexually assaulted him more than a dozen times a year, according to the interview and a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court.

The man decided to file suit against Servite, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Diocese of Orange and the Order of Servants of Mary, after a visit to the school’s campus in the summer of 2021 triggered months of soul-searching and re-evaluating his life.

“I went down to campus to reminisce,” the man said. “I was in Orange County and just driving around aimlessly. I went by my childhood home and I went by Servite.”

There the man came upon the Father Kevin Fitzpatrick Aquatic Center, a $5.7 million state-of-the-art facility completed in 2017.

“I saw this plaque and thought ‘(expletive) this,” the man said referring to the plaque dedicating the center to Fitzpatrick. “It just pissed me off. It was like (expletive) man this is the germ that built this really ugly plant that is part of my life.

“I started to relive everything and it was fresh and it got fresher and fresher.

“Everything that is in my life – choices, women, horrible relationships with bosses – it always goes back to that.”

The suit also alleges Sevite employees missed obvious signs that should have alerted them to Fitzpatrick’s misconduct. The man also suspects he wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s only alleged victim.

“Father Fitz had a room, it’s his own space. With a barber’s chair,” the man said. “That’s a red flag. And then like all of a sudden was gone.

“He was the most popular person at the school and all of a sudden he was gone. They transferred Father Fitz. Why?

“I can’t just be an isolated case. I just can’t.”

Fitzpatrick worked at Servite from 1970 to 1992. He was transferred to Our Savior Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1993 and then a church in suburban Portland, Oregon in 1994. Fitzpatrick died in 1997.

The suit names the Archdiocese of Los Angeles because the Diocese of Orange was not founded until March 1976.

The suit is possible because of Assembly Bill 218, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, created a three-year window to file past claims that had expired under the statute of limitations.

Alleged survivors must file civil suits within eight years of becoming an adult or three years from the date an adult survivor “discovers” or should have discovered they were sexually abused, under current California law.

The law requires that plaintiffs meet a mental health practitioner and receive a certificate of merit to file under AB218. The man has received a certificate of merit to file, according to his attorney Michael Reck.

“The question is what is the school going to do?” Reck said. “What is the diocese going to do? Are they going to get the name off the building? Are they going to say we’re sorry, (and say to potential other victims) please come forward and tell us what happened to you? Or are they going to circle the wagons?”

The Diocese of Orange declined to comment citing the pending litigation. An Archdiocese of Los Angeles spokesperson said she needed to gather more information before commenting. Servite did not respond to a request for comment.

Known as simply Father Fitz, Fitzpatrick was a beloved coach and teacher at Servite. In addition to coaching, teaching, maintaining the school’s pool, opening it up to neighborhood kids, Father Fitz was known for giving Servite students free haircuts on the pool deck and in the barber chair he kept in an office in the school’s annex.

“Father Fitz was a model friar, providing counseling and spiritual direction, and it is important to take time to say thank you,” then-Servite president Pete Bowen said during an April 2016 groundbreaking ceremony for the aquatics center.

Fitzpatrick had a special gift of relating to students from a wide range of backgrounds; he was known for living the Servite Charisms of Fraternity, Service and Humility,” Orange County Catholic wrote in a May 2016 article on the groundbreaking.

But the man, in an interview and court filings, portrays Fitzpatrick as a predatory priest who regularly preyed on a small, shy and insecure boy.

“The first two years (at Servite) I assumed he got me in,” said the man, who estimated he stood 5-foot-5, 125 pounds as a freshman. “The first two years I was petrified that at any moment I would be out.

“I was a very little kid and I looked feminine.”

The man estimates that “at least 20 times a year” while he was at Servite, Fitzpatrick would tell him he needed a haircut and bring him to his office and tell him to sit in the barber chair.

“He would put hair clips in my hair and say ‘what a pretty girl you are’ and masturbate. And he would tell me ‘don’t you dare move.’

“It was a ritual. It was gross to me. I was terrified.”

“I feel sorry for that kid,” the man said. “I changed my name (as an adult) because I want that guy gone. I didn’t want to be that kid anymore. Because that kid was so fragile. I cried every day. I cried every day until my 18th birthday.

The sexual assaults stopped during the boy’s senior year when he grew to 5-8, 190 pounds.

“I remember one time he literally said ‘come get a haircut’ and I said no,” the man recounted. “And he realized I could break his jaw.”

The man was in college when he ran into Fitzpatrick at a social event.

“I literally confronted him,” he said. “He looked away and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

But the man could not turn away from the alleged abuse that he said continued to haunt him for the next five decades.

He struggled with relationships and bosses. Haircuts still trigger anxiety. He changed his name but couldn’t escape the past.

“I’m single because of this,” he said. “I’m 60 and I’m unmarried. I can say without equivocation, I’m single because of this. I have a huge intimacy problem and this is why. If you’re sneaking up on me, I’m the jumpiest person you’ve ever met.”

He goes into the lawsuit with mixed emotions and aware that no matter the case’s resolution he can’t get back the thing he treasured most.

“When I was 13, I was a happy person and that gets stripped away from me,” he said. “I want my childhood back.”

He paused again. The heartache could be heard in the gasps as he collected himself.

“That actually made me cry,” he said referring to the recollection.

“What you get (from winning a lawsuit), I’d rather have my childhood back. I literally wonder how different my life would be a lot lately. I’m 60 now, I have to look at the truth for a while.”