These 10 Bay Area clergy are now linked for the first time to Catholic church sex abuse scandal

East Bay Times [Walnut Creek CA]

November 29, 2022

By John Woolfolk

State law opened the door to lawsuits from adults who say they were abused as children

As a deadline looms for new lawsuits to root out decades-old abuse, 14 Northern California priests — including 10 in the Bay Area — have been accused for the first time of sexually abusing children, adding to the list of dozens of disgraced clergy already exposed in recent years in a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic church for a generation.

The 14 accused priests came to light in a torrent of litigation unleashed by Assembly Bill 218, which opened a three-year window from 2020-2022 during which adults who say they were abused long ago as children are allowed to sue. Attorneys had predicted the law would generate thousands of lawsuits against institutions including the Boy Scouts and Catholic Church.

“Additional lawsuits are being filed nearly every day,” said Jennifer Stein, a lawyer with the Jeff Anderson and Associates firm, which is handling many of the AB 218 cases. “The number of names continue to grow. …  I think we’d expect the number of cases involving the Catholic Church in Northern California is likely to exceed 1,000.”

According to the Anderson firm, 66 clergy members accused of sexual abuse have been identified in 116 lawsuits filed in Alameda County Superior Court, which was designated to handle all of the Northern California cases. Of those, 14 have been publicly identified for the first time.

According to the lawsuits, those clergy members and cities in which they were accused of abuse are:

  • John A. Lynch, Christian Sandholdt, Robert Gemmet and Joseph Watt in San Francisco.
  • John Francis Scanlon and Domingos S. Jacques in Oakland
  • Benedict Reams in Moraga
  • Sister M. Rosella McConnell in Berkeley
  • Elwood Geary in San Jose
  • Henry Hall in Monterey
  • James F. Corley in Santa Rosa
  • Sidney P. Hall in Sacramento
  • William Dodson in Fresno
  • Robert H. Lewis in Dinuba

The wave of lawsuits comes as the Catholic Church in the U.S. has made substantial reforms in its practices to protect children in its care amid growing abuse reports in the 1990s and early 2000s, adopting a zero-tolerance policy two decades ago under what came to be known as the Dallas Charter. Dioceses in San Jose and Oakland have in recent years released lists of priests credibly accused of abusing kids.

But critics, including victim advocate groups such as SNAP, the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, have accused church leadership of not being fully forthcoming in those disclosures, which they say left out some accused clergy. And they have criticized the Archdiocese of San Francisco for not releasing such a list.

Melanie Sakoda, survivor support coordinator for SNAP, said she wasn’t surprised about the new names. She said SNAP already was aware of most of the newly identified priests except for Dodson, Jacque and Lewis.

“On the lists released by dioceses, there are usually names missing,” Sakoda said. “Some are already out in the public — just not named by the diocese — but we also hear from survivors that they had reported their abuse to the bishop, but the perpetrator does not appear on the list. The diocese has simply dismissed their outcries.”

None of the newly accused priests have had their cases adjudicated, and the allegations in the lawsuits remain unproven. The Archdiocese of San Francisco and the dioceses of Oakland and San Jose did not respond to questions about the newly named priests Monday afternoon.

The status of the newly accused priests is unclear, and that concerns both Sakoda and the Anderson law firm.

“The fact that the location of the 14 are unknown, as well as whether they still have access to children, is an extremely dangerous situation,” Sakoda said. “Many Catholic priests who were removed from ministry for preying on children went on to work in schools, as counselors, or in other positions where they could have additional victims.”

Jacques died in 2016.

The allegations come from adults who were children at the time of the abuse. Some of the victims use their names in filing the lawsuits; others remain anonymous.

Among the local cases, the Rev. Geary was accused in a lawsuit of repeatedly sexually abusing a boy in 1968 at Our Lady Queen of Apostles Catholic Church in San Jose, touching and fondling his genitals and forcibly performing oral sex on the child when he was 11 years old.

The Rev. Watt was accused in a lawsuit of taking an altar boy in the mid-1970s to gay bars in San Francisco, getting him drunk, sexually abusing him and telling him, “don’t tell your parents or I’ll cut your balls off.”

Scanlon sexually assaulted an altar boy at St. Andrew Catholic Church from about 1959 through 1964, asking him to stay behind after Mass, taking him to his home, fondling him, forcing him to perform oral sex on him and sodomizing him on numerous occasions, according to one of the lawsuits.

McConnell, vice principal of Presentation High School Berkeley from 1967 through 1979, was accused in a lawsuit of molesting a student from September 1967 to June 1971 on multiple occasions when the girl was 15 and 16 years old, touching her genitals, using a device to hold her in a room while she molested her, lying next to her and forcing her to engage in inappropriate sexual acts.

Now, advocates and lawyers are urging others who may have been abused as children to come forward with only a month before the deadline to file lawsuits under AB 218. After that, the statute of limitations in such cases will be restored, closing the window on future lawsuits.

“We are urging the public to help us in any way they can,” said attorney Mike Finnegan with the Anderson firm. “If you know anything about these newly accused perpetrators, contact law enforcement.”