Yakima Herald-Republic [Yakima WA]
July 17, 2022
By Joel Donofrio
[Photo above: Robert Fontana, director of Catholic Life Ministries of Seattle, speaks during a recent marriage enrichment workshop at a Catholic parish in Palm Desert, Calif. Courtesy photo.]
Robert Fontana worked for the Diocese of Yakima from 1991 through 2005, beginning as the director of ministry formation and deacon formation. Later his job evolved into the director of evangelization, and he also coordinated the diocesan pastoral council.
Throughout his employment with the diocese, Fontana also worked part-time for Catholic Life Ministries, supported by Yakima bishops Francis George and Carlos Sevilla.
According to its website, Catholic Life Ministries is an independent nonprofit with a focus on awakening faith, strengthening marriages and families, and building Christian community. It runs educational programs, retreats and other events for men, women and young people.
“I had a symbiotic relationship, if you will — I couldn’t stay working for the diocese without Catholic Life Ministries, because they didn’t pay me enough, and I wasn’t making ends meet,” Fontana said. “But Bishop George gave me two days a month of down time to do Catholic Life Ministries, and also allowed me to use diocesan equipment to print newsletters and things like that.
“We had this symbiotic relationship and Sevilla continued it. Sevilla came and said Mass for us, came to events that (Catholic Life Ministries) did, and supported them,” he added. “My relationship with the bishop had been very good. The bishop gave me a sabbatical in the year 2000 for a year of study in Ireland, letting me keep my job and paying me a partial salary with benefits.
“We had a very good relationship. It wasn’t until sex abuse started emerging in 2002 and I started asking questions — what is the truth about the situation in Yakima? — that walls just started going up.”
As Fontana detailed in a Sept. 30, 2019, letter to Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, questionable situations involving either sex abuse or child pornography were discovered by Fontana beginning in 2003 with an aspiring deacon who trained parish altar servers in Quincy. Nine months away from being ordained a deacon, the aspirant turned himself in to police — accompanied by Fontana — after allegedly abusing two nieces, outside of church activities.
Fontana said he was unable to convince Sevilla to do an internal investigation of the man.
According to Monsignor Robert Siler, episcopal vicar and spokesperson for the Yakima Diocese, no charges were ever filed in the Quincy case, but Sevilla eventually sought the Diocesan Lay Advisory Board’s advice and the man has not been permitted to minister in the church.
“What complicated the case early on for the bishop, as I understand it, was that the aspirant was not yet a deacon, and the Dallas Charter specifically addresses abuse by priests and deacons,” Siler said.
Later Fontana said he learned about Darell Mitchell’s situation, and what Fontana called a failure to protect Frank Murray, an employee at Mitchell’s parish, from allegations and threats from parish and diocesan employees who falsely claimed he had planted photos of naked children on Mitchell’s computer as a vendetta against the priest.
Fontana said he criticized Sevilla for not following diocesan policy regarding the reporting of potential sex abuse or other questionable behavior toward children, and believes he was forced out of his job as retribution.
“Because of my insistence on following the diocesan policy, I was reprimanded, my job was curtailed, and I was threatened with dismissal,” Fontana wrote in his Sept. 30, 2019, letter to Etienne.
Fontana said he learned about sex abuse cases involving Deacon Aaron Ramirez, Fr. John Tholen and Fr. Joaquin Estrada, and worked to expose them to the public. Fontana said he was retaliated against by Sevilla and finally resigned in September 2005.
Ramirez, Tholen and Estrada all appeared on a website the Yakima Diocese created in 2019 that identified priests and deacons with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor during their ministries in Central Washington.
“What happened to Robert was because of (the Mitchell case), but also because of him doing his own series of investigations,” Murray told the Herald-Republic. “He found a number of other problems, a number of other priests who have done things.”
Fontana filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the diocese following his resignation, alleging he was forced out as retaliation. Eventually, the Washington Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit in May 2007 due to First Amendment separation of church and state issues. The Washington Supreme Court upheld the decision.
He raised funds with Catholic Life Ministries donors that allowed him to become the full-time director of the organization, but was forced to teach and lead programs in people’s homes and outside Washington because he was unable to work in the Yakima Diocese and, at times, the Seattle Archdiocese.
The archdiocese ended its ban on Fontana working there in 2009, after the lawsuit was dismissed, Fontana said, and he traveled to Seattle for Confirmation retreats, marriage enrichment workshops and other programs.
Sevilla, who remains the bishop emeritus of the Yakima Diocese, was named the sixth bishop of Yakima on Dec. 31, 1996, according to the diocese website. When he turned 75 in August 2010, he submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, as church law requires, and Joseph Tyson was installed as the seventh bishop of Yakima on May 31, 2011.
Fontana and his wife, Lori, moved to the Seattle area in 2013, and he has continued working as director of Catholic Life Ministries.
Contact Joel Donofrio at firstname.lastname@example.org.