California has investigated Catholic priest sex abuse for years. Victims want answers on what they found

The Mercury News [San Jose CA]

May 31, 2023

By John Woolfolk

After Pennsylvania authorities issued a bombshell report in 2018 detailing widespread sexual abuse of children and coverup in the Roman Catholic church, California’s attorney general invited victims here to share their stories. The next year, the state subpoenaed half of California’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

What California authorities have learned since remains a mystery.

And for victims of long-ago abuse seeking justice in the courts while the state’s dioceses increasingly seek bankruptcy protection, the silence is a growing aggravation — especially as other states, notably Illinois and Maryland, recently issued their own reports, revealing a devastating past of abuse by hundreds of clergy of thousands of children.

“The public deserves to know what you have already uncovered,” SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a letter Wednesday to California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “We urge you to release a report, or at least a preliminary report, about what you have found concerning child sexual abuse in the church in California.”

Bonta’s office did not respond Wednesday. The attorney general’s office, which was under Xavier Becerra when the subpoenas were issued in 2019, has for years declined to confirm or deny that an investigation of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is underway.

Like California, the Illinois and Maryland attorney general also began their investigation of Catholic clergy child sex abuse after the 2018 Pennsylvania report, which found more than 300 clerics in multiple dioceses had abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years.

On May 23, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul — who, like Bonta, took over an ongoing probe begun by a predecessor — released a nearly 700-page report on Catholic clergy child sex abuse. At the time its investigation began, only two dioceses had identified 103 credibly accused priests. The report found 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers had abused at least 1,997 children across the state’s dioceses.

On April 4, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown released a report on an investigation begun in 2018 that found 156 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore had sexually abused more than 600 children over 80 years, often continuing after victims reported the abuse.

Similar probes by other state attorneys general, including in New York, are pending. New York did sue the Diocese of Buffalo in 2020, alleging it protected accused priests by quietly removing them from ministry. Last October, Attorney General Letitia James reached a settlement requiring that diocese to report complaints of clergy sexual abuse through a court-ordered compliance program for five years.

The shocking breadth of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal began to surface through lawsuits and law enforcement reports across the country and around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, before erupting in 2002 following reports in the Boston Globe about widespread clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Later that year, U.S. bishops adopted the the “Dallas Charter” for the protection of children, revised several times since, committing to a “zero tolerance” policy for priests credibly accused of abusing kids, and requiring mandatory reporting to civil authorities.

But dioceses are still confronting waves of litigation over decades-old abuse of children who are now in late middle-age — by clerics who have since died or retired long ago. A California law, AB 218, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, allowed older victims to file civil claims over a three-year period from 2020 through 2022 that otherwise would be barred by the statute of limitations.

The law has led to a torrent of lawsuits filed not only against the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, but also youth programs, from sports leagues to the Boy Scouts. According to SNAP, nearly 1,600 cases have been filed against the eight dioceses in northern California, which are being handled in Alameda County Superior Court.

The alleged abuse in those claims involves more than 300 California parishes and 30 parochial high schools. While seven of the eight northern California dioceses have published their own lists of credibly accused clergy, totaling 299 people, SNAP said that the wave of recent lawsuits suggests the total number is likely to be triple that.

Several California dioceses are seeking or considering bankruptcy protection in federal court — Santa Rosa and Oakland have done so, the San Diego Diocese says it will file in November, and Sacramento is considering the option. Bishops say it will produce the fairest settlement of the hundreds of lawsuits they face while allowing dioceses to continue their ministry work.

But SNAP argues the move is aimed at limiting public exposure of how the church handled victims’ complaints, and ultimately, the size of payouts. To that end, the advocacy group argues that a report by the attorney general would benefit abuse victims.

“Survivors will be shortchanged if (dioceses) go bankrupt,” said SNAP treasurer Dan McNevin, a former Corpus Christi Church altar boy in Fremont who received part of an Oakland diocese settlement in 2005. “And all of us will be shortchanged because we won’t get the full information about what went on.”