Diocese Admits It Strayed on Priest Reports of Sexual Activity Kept Secret

By Chris T. Nguyen
San Bernardino Sun
August 16, 2002

The Diocese of San Bernardino said Friday it should not have withheld reports of sexual misconduct about a priest it had fired and ordered into counseling when asked about the man by his new employer, an Orange County parochial school.

Monsignor Patrick J. O'Keefe, recently charged in San Bernardino County with 15 counts of oral copulation with a female minor 30 years ago, was hired in 1994 as director of religious education at St. Anne School in Santa Ana.

O'Keefe took the new job after he was fired by former San Bernardino Bishop Phillip F. Straling and was stripped of his rights to conduct priestly duties after three women complained of sexual indiscretions by O'Keefe in the 1970s and 1980s, a diocesan spokesman said.

But Tim Busch, chairman of St. Anne's board of directors, said the diocese never told him about those allegations even though asked.

In 1997, Busch said he wrote a letter to the San Bernardino Diocese asking why O'Keefe didn't have his "priestly faculties,' meaning he was no longer able to preside over Mass, weddings or baptisms.

"We were told by the diocese that there was no reason he shouldn't be' working at the school, Busch said Friday.

He declined to identify the official he wrote to but said, "I was told that there wasn't any reason I would be concerned.'

The diocesan official, Busch said, mentioned previous complaints against O'Keefe but declined to discuss details.

"To this day I don't know why he didn't have priestly faculties because they wouldn't tell me,' he said. "We have no reason ... to ever judge that there was a problem.'

On Friday, the Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the San Bernardino Diocese, said the diocese did not handle the matter appropriately.

In 1992, he said, O'Keefe was ordered to seek psychological therapy in San Bernardino to help him deal with sexual behaviors with adult women. He remained in counseling for about one year.

"He appeared to be making progress,' Lincoln said. "Based on this knowledge, we reported to St. Anne he could work in a business environment.'

"We did not handle this matter correctly,' he continued. "Had this matter occurred today we would have handled this correctly and O'Keefe would not have been recommended.'

The charges against O'Keefe stem from his tenure as pastor of St. Adelaide Catholic Church in Highland 30 years ago.

A female parishioner, who was 17 years old at the time, said O'Keefe had engaged in oral sex with her on 15 occasions from Jan. 1 to July 20, 1972, according to criminal charges made public Thursday.

Lincoln said the woman apparently had reported the incidents to the San Bernardino Diocese in 1989 during Straling's administration, which lasted from 1978 to 1995.

Straling, now the bishop of the Diocese of Reno, could not be reached for comment.

The accuser wasn't the first to complain about O'Keefe. Three women adults at the time told officials at the San Bernardino Diocese that the priest was involved in sexual indiscretions with them in the 1970s and 1980s, Lincoln said.

He said the diocese settled with one accuser in 1993 but wouldn't disclose the amount.

After the third woman came forward, Straling fired O'Keefe in 1994, Lincoln said.

"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 O'Keefe in an April 27, 1994, letter. "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.'

Officials of St. Anne School said Friday they had no knowledge of that letter. They said, too, that O'Keefe never mentioned the complaints against him.

The school's president, Steve Hammond, said Busch was contacted by the San Bernardino Diocese in April about the 1972 allegations. As a result, he said, O'Keefe was placed on paid administration leave.

"Father Pat was instructed to have no further contact with the school until the matter was resolved,' Hammond said. "He's denied these allegations since they came up.'

But O'Keefe resigned in June, issuing a brief letter to the school.

"He said that he was going to take a trip to Ireland,' Hammond said.

O'Keefe was popular at St. Anne School, a private Catholic school that enrolls 775 students from preschool to the eighth grade.

"He was very well liked,' Hammond said. "He formed lasting relationships with numerous people in the community.'

O'Keefe had problems, too.

St. Anne students complained of O'Keefe's behavior.

"Sometimes Father Pat would get stressed and be short with the students,' Hammond said.

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