Vatican issues reprimand of former Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla

Yakima Herald-Republic [Yakima WA]

July 17, 2022

By Joel Donofrio

An investigation of a former Yakima Catholic Diocese bishop’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases and the treatment of two employees who reported them has produced a rare reprimand from the Vatican.

Under a 2019 Pope Francis directive meant to protect reporters of abuse, retired Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla was reprimanded for causing “scandal or a grave disturbance of order,” according to several sources. The decision was announced privately in May to one of the now-former employees.

“I’ve followed and been involved in this issue for over 30 years. I believe this is a virtually unprecedented case,” David Clohessy, a longtime advocate for Catholic Church reform and the former director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, wrote in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

“All too rarely, Vatican officials have taken action against corrupt bishops. But almost never have they done so on behalf of a church whistleblower,” Clohessy wrote.

Although not as severe a punishment as she believes was warranted, Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the nonprofit Catholic Church reform group, told the Herald-Republic the investigation and reprimand of Sevilla is one of only perhaps a few dozen for Catholic bishops worldwide.

“It’s the first case I’ve heard of that’s totally under the radar. It’s not prompted by damage control,” Barrett Doyle said. “It’s unique, but it’s nothing to celebrate … it’s a disgracefully modest penalty. This is basically a slap on the wrist.”

Sevilla, who has served as bishop emeritus for the Yakima Diocese since 2011, and Monsignor Robert Siler, episcopal vicar and spokesperson for the Yakima Diocese, said diocese officials cooperated fully with the Church’s investigation.

“In reflecting back on these matters, I believe that after proper consultations with civil and church authorities, I made the best decisions I could at the time,” Sevilla wrote in an emailed statement. “I cooperated with the required processes asked for by the Vatican and provided what I believe was an adequate explanation for those decisions.

“The investigation has concluded and I received a papal reproof. It means I made mistakes and could have done better. I accept that judgment,” Sevilla added. “I will continue to pray for all involved.”

In a July 8 email to the Herald-Republic, Siler wrote that the Diocese of Yakima made files available to the investigative team sent by Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, and to Bishop Sevilla and his canon lawyer.

“It is difficult to comment on the outcome because of the confidential nature of the process,” he added. “We have not seen, nor are we likely to see, the investigative report, Archbishop Etienne’s communications with Bishop Sevilla or the Vatican, or the Vatican’s communications to Bishop Sevilla.”

How the Pope’s ‘Vos Estis’ rules work

The investigation and reprimand, made under rules issued by Pope Francis in 2019 to protect whistleblowers in the Catholic Church, was confirmed during a May 23 meeting between Etienne and Robert Fontana, director of Catholic Life Ministries in the Seattle area, according to Fontana.

Multiple emails and calls from the Herald-Republic to the Seattle Archdiocese requesting information about the investigation and the Vatican’s reprimand of Sevilla did not receive any response.

Under the “Motu Propiro: Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“On One’s Own Initiative: You Are the Light of the World”) directive issued by the pope on May 7, 2019, Etienne hired an independent investigator to examine Fontana’s role in reporting allegations of clergy sexual abuse during 2004 and 2005, when he was director of evangelization for the Yakima Diocese, and in the years following his resignation from that job in September 2005.

Fontana informed the investigator about Frank Murray, a former pastoral assistant at Holy Family Parish in Yakima who discovered photos of naked boys and teenagers on the printer of the parish’s then-pastor, Father Darell Mitchell, as he fixed a computer issue for the priest on Sept. 26, 2003.

As detailed in a related story, the Mitchell case attracted significant media attention during 2004 — although it did not result in charges against the priest after investigations by the Yakima Police Department and FBI.

Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.

Discovering those photos — which Murray turned over to diocesan officials later that day — caused a chain of events that Murray believes forced him out of his job and was among the reasons Fontana believes he eventually would lose his.

Siler disputed that Murray and Fontana lost their jobs due to their reporting and questioning of clergy sexual abuse cases or other matters.

“Based on my own review of the files as well as first-hand knowledge, the reprimands given to Mr. Fontana by Bishop Sevilla are well-documented and were well-founded,” Siler wrote in his July 8 email. “We strongly disagree that Mr. Fontana was retaliated against for the reasons he stated, or for any other reason.

“When he resigned, Mr. Fontana was receiving full pay and benefits, and had meaningful work directing the Diocese’s adult religious formation program. Bishop Sevilla also offered him a pathway to rebuild trust. He chose not to take it,” Siler added.

“Based on my review of the files and first-hand knowledge, I also do not believe the Diocese caused Frank Murray to lose his job. It was a parish decision based on their pastoral and financial needs.”

Fontana’s belief that his questioning of Sevilla and the Yakima Diocese led to retribution against him prompted the pastoral board of Catholic Life Ministries to request the Seattle Archdiocese investigation. The results of the 2020 investigation were eventually forwarded to a Vatican council and prompted the reprimand of Sevilla, approved by the pope.

“When Vos Estis came out three years ago, we thought, ‘Ah! This is an opportunity for us to clear the way so we could work in ministry,” Fontana told the Yakima Herald-Republic on June 28. “But also, I wanted Frank to be vindicated. I wanted to be vindicated. Most importantly, if whistleblowers aren’t protected, children aren’t safe.”

Like Barrett Doyle, Fontana said he is upset about the secrecy that surrounded the Vos Estis investigation and the extremely limited way Etienne and the Seattle Archdiocese announced its results.

He would have preferred Etienne issue a public statement, either in Seattle or during a visit to Yakima, vindicating Murray and himself while publicly admonishing Sevilla for how he handled clergy sex abuse investigations.

Instead, Fontana was informed of the Vatican’s reprimand of Sevilla during a private meeting with the archbishop and one of his associates, during which Fontana said he was prohibited from taking notes.

“I’m very grateful Archbishop Etienne shared this with me, and initiated the investigation. I’m gratified that Sevilla was found to be doing something harmful to the church,” Fontana said. “I’m extremely disappointed that no statement was ever made to lay and clergy employees that if you are a whistleblower, we’re going to stand with you and support you 100%.

“This is such a secret, internal, private matter in the church — that the reprimand would not be public. And so, ironically, it puts me and Frank in the position of being whistleblowers again, to expose this,” he added. “Are we going to be protected now that we exposed this, are we going to be vilified?

“The rules of the Vatican I believe are woefully inadequate, especially with this not being made public,” Fontana said.

Murray, who served a variety of roles during his 18 years at Holy Family Parish before he left in 2006, said he decided to speak about reporting the questionable photos to diocesan officials — and the consequences which resulted from that decision — after Fontana told him about the Vatican’s reprimand, and the way it was revealed.

“I waited until something came out that in Robert’s mind vindicated us. In my mind it shed light on what really happened here in Yakima and why the bishop was reprimanded,” Murray told the Herald-Republic during a June 10 interview at his home.

“But there was absolutely zero detail on what the reprimand was, what it was really for, nothing … Robert wasn’t even given a copy of the conclusionary report, he wasn’t given any specific information, just the archbishop’s little statement (on Sevilla), he’s been reprimanded. And that was it,” Murray said.

“So that told me, “You know what, Frank? You waited for it to go to the highest authority — (the reprimand) was handed down from the pope. Whatever this letter was, it was physically handed to the pope. He physically read and approved the statement and conclusion. So you ain’t going to get any higher than that.’ And still, nothing. Still no transparency, still not shining any light on it,” he added.

“I’m coming from the perspective, really, totally of protecting children,” said Murray. He said he worries children in the diocese will not necessarily be safe if staff and volunteers fear retribution for following protocols and reporting abuse, as he believes occurred with him.

The archdiocese investigates

Fontana worked for the Diocese of Yakima from 1991 through 2005, when he said his questioning of how sex abuse cases were handled forced him to resign from his job (see related story). After resigning in 2005, he began to work full time as director of Catholic Life Ministries, which he founded in 1990.

However, Fontana said he believes Yakima diocesan officials interfered with his ability to teach and lead retreats, marriage enrichment workshops and other programs — even after he and his wife moved to Seattle in 2013. This prompted Fontana’s supporters with Catholic Life Ministries to request an investigation under the pope’s Vos Estis directive.

“We appeal to you, in light of Pope Francis’ recent decree that whistleblowers in the Church ought to be protected, and that the metropolitan archbishop is to oversee cases involving sex abuse and/or cover-up by local bishops, to vindicate the good name of Robert Fontana,” the Catholic Life Ministries pastoral board wrote in an Aug. 1, 2019, letter to Etienne.

The board wrote that Fontana is a faithful minister of the church who has proven his fidelity to the Catholic community — despite opposition at times from diocesan leaders in Yakima and Seattle.

“Robert has worked for change in the Church because he loves the Church,” the letter concluded. “We ask you to restore Robert’s good name and allow him to continue his ministry unimpeded.”

The Most Rev. Joseph Tyson succeeded Sevilla as Yakima bishop in 2011. Siler, the Yakima Diocese spokesperson, said Fontana’s allegations that Tyson interfered with his work for Catholic Life Ministries “are greatly distorted.”

“Bishop Tyson is responsible for overseeing Roman Catholic evangelization in the Yakima Diocese,” Siler wrote in a July 8 email to the Herald-Republic. “After he arrived in 2011, he introduced clear standards for individuals and organizations seeking his endorsement, as well as permission, to use the word Catholic in their organizations’ names and advertising. These standards have been applied evenly throughout the diocese, without favoritism.

“Mr. Fontana’s request for endorsement in 2012 was clouded by reports that he was living in Seattle and had registered in a parish there,” Siler added. “Nonetheless, Bishop Tyson consulted with a senior group of priests, the Consultors, who recommended that approval not be given until improvement was shown in one key area: ‘Standard Four: In and out of the classroom and workshop settings all presenters demonstrate visible public communion with parish and diocesan leadership.’

“Bishop Tyson offered the assistance of a well-known and trusted priest, the late Fr. Tom Kuykendall, to help guide him in meeting the standard. Mr. Fontana declined the offer,” Siler wrote.

Following the Catholic Life Ministries board’s request for an investigation, in the fall of 2020, an investigator from Alaska was hired by the Seattle Archdiocese, and he interviewed both Fontana and Murray. The investigator also visited Yakima to go through files at the diocese, Murray said.

Siler said the investigator did not interview everyone pertinent to the case, including Russ Mazzola, chairman of the Diocese Lay Advisory Board, established in 2003 to make it easier to report possible cases of sexual misconduct by priests.

“We just found out July 7 that the investigative team did not interview Russ Mazzola … who could have provided helpful information,” Siler wrote in an email to the Herald-Republic. “To me that seems a missed opportunity.”

The Vatican’s decision

As Fontana and Murray understand it, the investigator’s report was sent to a Vatican congregation that oversees bishops under the rules of Vos Estis. The reprimand is based on Canon Law 1339, which states:

“An ordinary, personally or through another, can warn a person who is in the proximate condition of committing a delict or upon whom, after investigation, grave suspicion of having committed a delict has fallen. He can also rebuke a person whose behavior causes scandal or a grave disturbance of order, in a manner accommodated to the special conditions of the person and the deed.”

The “ordinary” referred to in the canon law is a bishop or another person equivalent or above him in the church hierarchy, and a “delict” is the canonical equivalent of a crime, according to the Vatican’s glossary of terms under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It was this section of Canon Law which Etienne referenced during his May 23 meeting with Fontana to discuss the Vatican’s reprimand of Sevilla, Fontana said. The meeting included the archbishop, another priest who took notes and Fontana.

“I could not take notes at the meeting. I could not see the letter from the pope. I could not even see the notes that were taken at the meeting by the priest scribe who was there,” Fontana told the Herald-Republic.

“And the archbishop did not read me the entire letter. He just read me one paragraph of the letter, stating what the reprimand was,” he added. “I have no idea what the investigation says about me, if they think I did a good job, did a terrible job. I don’t know if they applaud me or scorn me. I have no idea.”

Fontana did say that he is now free to teach and perform his ministries in the Archdiocese of Seattle — although as far as he knows, not in the Yakima Diocese.

“After the fact, I thought about it. My bad reputation in the Seattle Archdiocese is not because I do bad ministry here, or because I’m not very Catholic,” Fontana said. “It’s because I challenged the way sex abuse was handled in the Yakima Diocese.

“Not because of the quality of my work, not because of my Catholicity, but because I challenged the bishop of Yakima about issues related to sex abuse,” Fontana added.

Catholic Church reform advocates Clohessy and Barrett Doyle both hope the reprimand of Sevilla is a small step toward holding other bishops accountable and protecting church employees who report abuse.

“Robert and his board are brave and caring people,” Clohessy, the former SNAP director, wrote in an email to the Herald-Republic. Clohessy also criticized Sevilla, alleging he worked to discredit Fontana when Fontana reported abuse cases and questioned how they were handled.

“Catholic officials in Washington will now think twice before ‘shooting the messenger’ in future cases of clergy sex abuse and cover-up. In fact, the deterrence value of what Robert and his board are doing cannot be overstated,” he wrote. “Catholics, in Yakima and elsewhere, should be grateful for their courage.”

Barrett Doyle, of, said her Massachusetts-based group has counted 28 Vos Estis investigations of bishops worldwide — Sevilla’s would be the 29th. Ten of these were in the U.S. and 16 of them were in Poland.

“The difficulty in counting these things is very rarely do we get confirmation that a bishop is under investigation,” Barrett Doyle said. “We’ve counted roughly 30 cases — some bishops have been found innocent, and some have been sanctioned.

“One of (Vos Estis’ rules) is it criminalizes retaliating against a whistleblower — it’s now a crime under canon law,” she added. “The hope is it encourages other lay people and whistleblowers to come forward.”

However, Barrett Doyle is discouraged that the Sevilla decision, and other Vos Estis investigations, remain veiled in secrecy by Church officials.

In an opinion column from the May 2022 National Catholic Reporter newspaper, Barrett Doyle says this secrecy is one of the reasons the pope’s Vos estis directive isn’t working as well as it should.

“Under Vos Estis, it is permissible to keep the public in the dark from start to finish. It includes no requirements to inform the faithful,” Barrett Doyle wrote.

She encourages the Vatican to adopt the recommendation of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to “publish decisions in disciplinary matters relating to child sexual abuse, and provide written reasons for [the church’s] decisions.”

“Most importantly, honor a complainant’s right to information. Require church authorities to regularly update victims and other reporters on the status of investigations,” Barrett Doyle wrote. “Upon request, release to the victim the files about her case, redacting the names of other victims.”

Contact Joel Donofrio at