Onetime Highland Priest Accused of Sexual Crimes Teen Tryst Allegations Surface after 30 Years; Arrest Warrant Issued

By Felisa Cardona
San Bernardino Sun
August 15, 2002

A Catholic priest has been charged with 15 felony counts of oral copulation 30 years ago with a then-17-year-old girl who was a parishioner at St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland.

An arrest warrant was issued for the Rev. Patrick J. O'Keefe, 67, on July 18, along with the criminal complaint.

Sheriff's investigators said they don't know where O'Keefe is. A native of Ireland, his last known address was in Laguna Niguel.

The alleged victim contacted the Florida Bishops Conference in April and said that she had been sexually abused by O'Keefe while he was the pastor in Highland, according to the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino.

From Florida, the complaint subsequently was turned over to the San Bernardino Diocese and then to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

Sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson said deputies have more than the woman's word that the crimes actually took place.

"I could tell you that we have more than mere statements to support the criminal actions,' he said, "but I would not want to go into detail for fear of hurting the integrity of our case.'

Investigators are protecting the woman's identity because she is a purported victim of a sexual assault.

Lincoln said the woman apparently reported the incident in 1989 to the administration of former San Bernardino Bishop Phillip F. Straling, but Bishop Gerald Barnes did not learn of her complaint until notified by the bishops' conference in April.

Straling was bishop in San Bernardino from 1978 to 1995.

"In 1989, an attempt was made by the previous administration to address this matter internally,' Lincoln said. "That was the way they chose to handle the matter. With Bishop Barnes, it would be handled far differently.'

The reported incident with the teen-age girl is not the first time O'Keefe's sexual habits have come into question.

O'Keefe was fired from the diocese on April 27, 1994, by Straling after sexual indiscretions with three adult women were reported.

Lincoln said he did not know the exact nature of the complaints, the dates or the ages of the women involved.

The diocese settled a complaint with one of the women financially, but a confidentiality agreement issued at that time prevents Lincoln from disclosing how much money was involved.

"The incidents were reported by the women themselves,' Lincoln said. "It wasn't rape or anything like that. It wasn't criminal in nature, but any sexual misconduct by a priest is misconduct. One of these complaints was the last straw. That led to a letter to Father O'Keefe.'

In the letter, Straling told O'Keefe that he should seek work outside the church.

"It is not possible for you to continue to work as a priest here in this diocese due to the reasons that you and I spoke of during our meeting,' Straling wrote. "It is also not possible for you to go to another diocese.

"The only option would be to seek and obtain a job in the secular world. This should be one that in no way would be associated with duties of the ministry.'

Despite the letter, O'Keefe got a job at St. Anne School in Laguna Niguel in 1997, Lincoln said. The school has students from preschool through eighth grade.

O'Keefe was working there, although it's not known whether it was in a clerical capacity, until April when the Sheriff's Department began investigating the woman's complaint.

"We informed St. Anne and they immediately dismissed him and he was forbidden to be around the campus,' Lincoln said.

Orange County diocesan officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

Lincoln said he's not sure if the San Bernardino Diocese told the Diocese of Orange about O'Keefe's alleged indiscretions with the adult women or that he was told he should not seek employment within the church.

"I would think there was a possibility of communication,' Lincoln said.

Lincoln said school got approval from former Orange Bishop Norman McFarland to hire O'Keefe, but that he didn't know if McFarland was completely aware of O'Keefe's history.

In April, O'Keefe was made aware that he was being investigated on suspicion of engaging in oral copulation with the 17-year-old.

"We do not know where he is now,' Lincoln said. "We gave the last address we had for him to the San Bernardino authorities.'

O'Keefe was ordained in 1959 for the Diocese of San Diego, which used to have jurisdiction over churches in San Bernardino County.

He came from Kilkenny, Ireland, where his parents were in the publishing business.

"In those days, they actually went to seminary in Ireland knowing they would be assigned to places in the United States,' Lincoln said.

O'Keefe spent most of his ministry in San Bernardino County, but did some work in San Diego County previously.

"He could be a very eloquent sermonist and a man who had significant experience in ministry,' Lincoln said.

It's a painful subject to talk about, he said.

"Bishop Barnes and our diocese are trying to be very open and accountable and trying to restore the trust that has been lost in the Catholic Church,' Lincoln said.

Former students and parishioners did not want to speak on the record about O'Keefe, but they described him as a dynamic, sophisticated man who liked to dress formally and drove a Chrysler LeBaron.

O'Keefe kept St. Bernard dogs at the rectory at St. Adelaide.

Churchgoers described him as a popular priest who had a long line of people waiting for him to hear confession.

He was an adamant public defender of celibacy for the priesthood and pushed that idea as director of vocations for the diocese.

"He was very well liked and he was very outward,' said Clarence Beelner, a member of St. Adelaide's since 1978. "I trusted him enough to marry my youngest daughter and my son-in-law. I am quite a bit surprised by all this because he didn't seem like that kind of person.'

Beelner greeted church members at 7 p.m. Mass on Monday and hugged everyone as they came in. Although disappointed by reports about sexual misconduct by priests, he feels the disclosure can only strengthen the diocese.

"It's just bringing us all together,' Beelner said.

Patterson said the 17-year-old girl's allegations are the only ones the Sheriff's Department knows of.

Since the church scandal broke earlier this year, the Sheriff's Department has received three complaints against priests, including the one against O'Keefe.

"One we determined was outside the realm of the statute of limitations for that particular offense,' Patterson said. "Another we determined had been previously investigated and that investigation did not result in criminal charges.'

All of the complaints received by sheriff's investigators were decades old, Patterson said.

"That might help put it all into perspective,' he said. "These are not recent allegations.'

Sheriff's detectives are asking the public's help in locating O'Keefe.

"We would prefer that he turn himself in in the company of his attorney if necessary,' Patterson said, "because we have not had a chance to interview him.'

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